INDIANAPOLIS — Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. pumped his fist while bouncing in a Santa hat, as head coach Brandon Staley put his arm around owner Dean Spanos and presented him with a game ball.
“I’ve been hoping to give him a game ball since I got here,” Staley hollered. “He’s been patient. He’s invested in this team. He’s brought all of us together … game ball, playoff appearance — Dean Spanos.”
Spanos, Staley and the Bolts had plenty to celebrate in the visitors locker room at Lucas Oil Field after dismantling the downtrodden Indianapolis Colts 20-3 on Monday night.
For the first time since 2018, the Chargers will return to the postseason, having clinched a playoff berth after improving to 9-6, with two games remaining in the regular season.
“I’m not good at making speeches, but I’m so proud of all you guys,” Spanos said as players whooped. “I know we’ve got a little ways to go, but we’re starting on a good leg right now, so let’s do it.”
The Chargers entered Week 16 with a direct path to the postseason after jumping into the No. 6 seed with a Dec. 18 win over the visiting Tennessee Titans. However, LA’s postseason berth came earlier than perhaps expected after the New York Jets, New England Patriots and Las Vegas Raiders each fell in their weekend matchups.
“I’ve been here long enough to know that when it comes, it’s a great feeling,” said Chargers 10th-year veteran Keenan Allen amid bumping music and dancing teammates. “We talk about it all the time: Control what you can control. And this week, we were able to handle our own destiny and we made it happen.”
Said Sebastian Joseph-Day, who last season won a Super Bowl with the Rams: “It’s amazing and it’s indescribable … But it’s not over. We have two games left and we have to keep this thing rolling.”
It will be the first postseason appearance for Staley and Herbert, the third-year signal-caller who completed 24 of 31 passes for 235 yards with an interception Monday night.
“It will be a lot of fun,” Herbert said. “Just excited to be in that atmosphere and to have that opportunity and keep playing football.”
“It’s just the beginning. This is not our final goal,” said Staley, who narrowly missed the playoffs in his first season as coach after losing to the Raiders in Week 18 — when a tie or win would have sent the Bolts to the postseason. “We have two more games against really good teams and we need to search to play our best football so we can not only get into the playoffs but make a run to a Super Bowl championship, which is what our goal is.”
At the outset of the season, the Bolts were among the favorites to not only earn a playoff trip but make a deep run, after bolstering their defense.
A blockbuster trade with the Chicago Bears brought pass-rusher Khalil Mack to LA, and the Bolts signed cornerback JC Jackson to a five-year, $82.5 million deal in free agency while also loading up their defensive line with Austin Johnson and Joseph-Day.
However, the Chargers teetered through a 5-5 start, as several significant players dealt with injuries.
Herbert played several weeks through fractured rib cartilage that he suffered in Week 2 and was without wide receivers Allen and Mike Williams, who dealt with a hamstring strain and high ankle sprain, respectively, for a significant time. Allen and Williams did not play a complete game together until Week 14. The offensive line also lost left tackle Rashawn Slater to injured reserve after Week 3.
On defense, the Bolts lost edge rusher Joey Bosa, Jackson and Johnson to injured reserve. Bosa could still return, but the unit is otherwise hitting its stride.
“So many people have had their hand in this, and that’s the beautiful thing,” said Joseph-Day, after giving shoutouts to rookie kicker Cameron Dicker, who has produced two game-winning field goals this season, and return specialist DeAndre Carter. “A lot of guys really stepped up, and I think that’s where a lot of the growth really comes from.”
The Chargers held Nick Foles to 17-of-29 passing for 143 yards with three interceptions while sacking the Indianapolis quarterback seven times. The Colts were 0-for-10 on third down.
“We’ve got the makeup to withstand the type of season that we’ve had. I think that we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the toughness of our football team, the makeup of our football team,” Staley said. “For far too long people have talked about the talent of this football team and the organization and that’s ultimately not what gets you where you want to go. You have to prove your toughness, and that’s what we have proven so far this year, is that we have a tough enough football team mentally and physically to be where we are right now.”
The Chargers face the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday in what will be a home game for the Bolts, and wrap up the regular season at Denver in Week 18.
Despite clinching his first career playoff berth, Herbert appeared adamant that there remains plenty of room for improvement going forward.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best football yet,” Herbert said. “I think the defense has done an incredible job these past couple of weeks. I think offensively we can be better. We can limit turnovers, and that starts with me.”