Their offense had a 400-yard passer and a 200-yard receiver. They gained 475 yards and scored 475 more yards. They had an 11-point lead in the third quarter and a three-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
Finally, they secured their first win of the season on Sunday when Kenneth Murray Jr. snatched a ball just inches above the end zone turf on the 78th play of the game that the Chargers had to defend.
“I was so happy,” safety Alohi Gilman said, “because I was tired as hell.”
In a game with five lead changes and so many others to count, the Chargers beat Minnesota 28-24 to avoid an 0-3 start that could have ruined their season.
They won on an afternoon in which they lost wide receiver Mike Williams to a potentially serious knee injury and safety Derwin James Jr. to a hamstring strain, though James said afterward, “I’ll be good.”
They won after coach Brandon Staley decided late in the fourth quarter to play on fourth down deep in his territory with a running back who gained 12 yards on 11 carries on the day.
They won despite giving up 367 passing yards to Kirk Cousins and 149 receiving yards to Justin Jefferson and recording 29 first downs, seven of which came by Charger penalty.
But they certainly won, behind Justin Herbert (40 of 47 for 405 yards and three touchdowns) and Keenan Allen (18 receptions for 215 yards and one touchdown). happen) and a defense that did just enough.
“That was a lot, man,” Gilman said. “I’m just happy we won. The way we did it in the end makes it even better.”
Starting with the goal, the Chargers kept the Vikings out of the end zone with six seconds left when Cousins threw to tight end TJ Hockenson near the goal line while linebacker Nick Niemann was defending.
The ball flew into the air and through the hands of safety JT Woods, where it lingered just long enough for Murray to jump a yard or two into the purple-painted end zone.
“I just got my hands on it like I was in the park,” Murray said of his second career interception. “I could hear my teammates telling me, ‘Stay down!’ That was it. Walk into the end zone and act like you’ve been there before.”
The play was the Chargers’ second goal-line stop in the final minutes of the game. On Minnesota’s previous possession, the Chargers held after the Vikings had first-and-goal at the three-yard line.
During that sequence, Gilman, Murray and defensive tackle Austin Johnson stopped consecutive running plays before pressure forced Cousins into an incompletion and cornerback Michael Davis fouled Jefferson on fourth down.
For the game, the Chargers limited Minnesota to one touchdown on four red zone trips – each a score-to-go situation – and four of 14 on third down.
“We showed what we’re capable of,” said Niemann, who played for injured starter Eric Kendricks. “It’s just about doing the simple things and everyone taking care of their job. Just go out there and do what you’re supposed to do.”
In between these dramatic defensive situations, Staley perhaps added more drama with his decision to pounce on fourth-and-1 from his 24-yard line with 1:57 left.
During his first season with the Chargers in 2021, Staley quickly established the identity of a coach willing to enforce Game 4 decisions when the analysis was in his favor.
He appeared to dial back his aggressiveness last season and this season, including on a fourth-and-short at the Tennessee 44-yard line early in the second quarter last week.
But this time Staley didn’t seem to hesitate. His reasoning after the game: The Chargers needed less than a yard, the Vikings were out of timeouts and the difference was four points, meaning Minnesota needed a touchdown.
“I felt like our defense was able to play the way they did down the stretch…,” Staley said. “It’s your job as a head coach to make sure your team knows you believe in them.”
He continued: “We came here to win. It was a tough road game against a team that made the playoffs (in 2022). We tried to win the game. I make no apologies for that.”
The Chargers attempted to rush Joshua Kelley inside, but he was stopped to no avail. Before that snap, the offense had converted four straight fourth downs since last weekend and was four of five this season.
Staley said there was an opportunity for the 6-foot-10 Herbert to attempt a sneak attack, but Minnesota took away that option with its defensive focus.
Regardless, the Chargers survived and left US Bank Stadium exhausted but also refreshed, standing tall but also limping.
Williams, the No. 2 receiver behind Allen and an explosive threat on a team with few explosive threats, was injured while receiving in the third quarter. He was helped off the field and had to be taken to the locker room in a cart.
Staley didn’t offer an update after the game, but the Chargers should learn more through further investigation after they return to Southern California.
Despite what could have been a significant defeat, this was a team desperate to get the win they so desperately wanted.
“We needed a test like this,” Gilman said. “We ended up together. The only thing we thought about was staying together. Nothing else mattered.”