Photograph: Gary A Vasquez/USA Today Sports
The scenario was familiar. A promising Los Angeles Chargers team was playing its heart out in a back-and-forth battle – this time with the Cleveland Browns. The “home crowd” at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles was teeming with Browns fans, another reminder that the Chargers play second fiddle in their own town. No matter which team you were rooting for though, the fourth quarter was mesmerizing.
The Chargers took a 28-27 lead to open the quarter when Justin Herbert found a wide-open (to put it mildly) Mike Williams for a 42-yard score. Then the Browns took a one-score lead when Baker Mayfield fired a 71-yard shot to TE David Njoku and executed the two-point conversion. Los Angeles tied it 35-35 with an ensuing Austin Ekeler touchdown run. But back came Cleveland to take a 42-35 lead on a Kareem Hunt score. With 4:45 left, Brandon Staley’s squad would again have to find an answer.
In many ways, this moment felt like a fork in the road for these Chargers. This year’s iteration of the team has mostly won, even close games. The sole exception – the team’s only loss – came in Week 2 against Dallas when they thought they had secured a late touchdown to take the lead, but a penalty forced them to settle for a game-tying field goal, only to be defeated by a 56-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal with four seconds remaining. That loss was a painful reminder that we are barely removed from the days when devastating, infuriating Chargers losses were commonplace. Last year’s narrative was all about blowing huge leads – and they became the first NFL team in history to blow leads of 16 or more points in four straight games. But heartbreaking losses were a staple of the Philip Rivers years too.
Related: Bars, dancing and plenty of losses: Urban Meyer is flaming out in style
As the Chargers drove to tie the game on Sunday, it looked like they would go three and out, giving the Browns a steep advantage. But then Herbert connected with Keenan Allen on a 37-yard beauty and marched his team down the field, connecting with Ekeler on the 19-yard score.
Suddenly these Chargers, matching the Browns’ scrappiness in a potential playoff preview, felt different. Under Herbert and Staley, and overflowing with talent, this group wasn’t going to fall prey to all the Chargers voodoo out there. Nope, the past is the past.
Then Tristan Vizcaino missed the extra point. The Chargers curse was happening again. 42-41 Browns.
On the ensuing drive the Chargers held the Browns to a three and out. Then, this time with great field position, the Chargers marched into the end zone again via Ekeler. Even though the Browns would take a 47-42 lead there were reminders of Chargers’ losses past. Ekeler tried not to score near the goalline so that the Chargers could run down the clock and kick a winning field-foal as time expired. But in a smart display of time management, the Browns pushed him into the endzone, leaving Mayfield plenty of time (1:31) to win the game.
But the ghosts of Chargers losses past would stay away this week. The Browns were unable to get the ball into plausible striking distance of the end zone. Game over.
The Chargers now stand at 4-1. They have a bonafide MVP candidate in Herbert. He torched one of the NFL’s top defenses for 398 yards and five total touchdowns. Sunday was not the Chargers’ best defensive effort of the season, though they stopped Cleveland when it counted most. But prior to this week, the Chargers had held every other opponent to their lowest point total of the season.
Even the deepest-rooted NFL stigmas can be broken. Well, maybe not the Lions and Jets being utter disasters. But everything else. The Browns became a winning franchise. The Bears made an effort to secure a dynamic, modern quarterback. Tom Brady is likeable now.
There is no reason the Chargers can’t thrive as a normal winning team that doesn’t crush our souls. But even in victory, we were reminded the past is never far away.
Quote of the week
“That was a crazy end to the game. That’s insanity. The fact that we kept getting opportunities, you’ve got to give it up to our team” – Green Bay Packers kicker Mason Crosby.
Until Sunday, Crosby had been as reliable as they come at knocking through field goals – he had made 27 straight, dating back to 2019. Then, for some reason, he got the yips. Against the Bengals, Crosby missed a remarkable three straight field goals, including two that would have ended the game. Even more remarkable is that Crosby wasn’t alone. Bengals kicker Evan McPherson also missed two field goals in the final minutes (including one in which he prematurely celebrated). It reached a point where you had to watch the end of the game with one eye covered, as if watching the spookiest of horror movies. It made sense to continue to attempt field goals in overtime given that the reward is a victory but the #gofortwo movement made a lot of strides Sunday. By halftime of the first slate of games alone, there had been seven missed extra points, including one by, you guessed it, Mason Crosby.
Stat of the week
20. Urban Meyer’s nightlife is the least of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ problems. The team responded to Meyer’s idiotic recent decisions by doing what they do best: losing. Week 5 marked the 20th consecutive loss by Jacksonville. It’s a new story every week. Sunday’s 37-19 loss to Tennessee featured a lovely cocktail of porous run defense (Derrick Henry, 130 yards and three touchdowns), killer turnovers (Kevin Byard turned Dan Arnold’s first-quarter fumble into a Titans touchdown) and bad coaching (who else other than Meyer would think that inserting Carlos Hyde on third and goal at a critical juncture is a good idea?).
The 0-5 Jags now are sole owners of the second-worst losing streak in NFL history, six shy of the 1977 Bucs. Strap in, Jags fans, it’s going to be looooong season.
MVP of the week
The old man was at it again on Sunday. Photograph: Jonathan Dyer/USA Today Sports
Tom Brady, quarterback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Yeah, yeah. That guy again. Brady took out last week’s less-than-Hall-of-Fame like performance on the poor Dolphins’ secondary. The ageless wonder put up gargantuan numbers in the 45-17 thrashing of Miami – 411 passing yards and five touchdowns. Brady is supposedly hampered by the loss of Rob Gronkowski. But taking the field with Mike Evans and Antonio Brown, who each scored twice Sunday, plus Chris Godwin, is not too shabby.
Video of the week
Like most NFL weeks, Week 5 had its share of impressive catches but none was more jaw-dropping then Rondale Moore’s toe-tip grab. Moore continues to showcase the scrappy athleticism that inspired the Cardinals to draft the 5ft 7in wideout out of Purdue in the second round of this year’s draft. Moore is part of a cavalcade of weapons for Kyler Murray that includes DeAndre Hopkins, AJ Green, and emergent tight end Maxx Williams. But he’s already shown flashes of being a “mini-Tyreek.”
Elsewhere around the league
Josh Allen’s Bills were too good for the Chiefs. Photograph: Jay Biggerstaff/USA Today Sports
— A storm temporarily halted Sunday Night Football but it wasn’t enough to save the Kansas City Chiefs from a 38-20 defeat to the Buffalo Bills. Many saw this as a preview of the AFC Championship Game, but the Chiefs badly need to address their defense, which has allowed 30 points or more in each of the last four games, if they want to make it that far. There were doubts over the Bills coming into the game from those who believed they had benefited from a soft opening schedule. But their defense was sharp against one of the league’s most potent offenses and Josh Allen appears to be getting better with every game after a shaky start to the season. Patrick Mahomes, meanwhile, is helming a 2-3 side.
— The 5-0 Cardinals continue as the only undefeated team in football after beating the 49ers 17-10 in Trey Lance’s debut as a starter. It was an efficient performance under pressure by Murray and co, who benefitted from facing a rookie who showed a lot of promise but not enough execution and some really bad calls on fourth-down plays by Kyle Shanahan. Between this win by Arizona and Los Angeles’ takedown of the Seahawks this week, the top and bottom ends of the NFC West are quite clear at the moment.
— Perhaps the biggest surprise this season is how the Washington Football Team’s defense went from top-five in 2020 to bottom five in 2021 with no real explanation. Once again, the Washington defense was a huge liability in a 33-22 loss to the Saints. This was a winnable game for Washington, one in which Jameis Winston gave them some opportunities, but they in fact made life easy for the Saints. The defensive line was fine and Chase Young finally got his first sack of the season but, oof, the pass defense was atrocious. They had a horrible busted coverage on the second series of the day and were burned for a Hail Mary to end the first half amid confusion about their assignments. If Urban Meyer’s seat is the hottest, WFT defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s isn’t far behind.
— Justin Fields is 2-0 to start his career after the Bears topped the Raiders 20-9. His numbers don’t jump off the page – 12-of-20, 111 yards and a touchdown – but his processing continues to improve. The 3-2 Bears face the 4-1 Packers for NFC North supremacy next week.