The Chargers opened the season 4-1, had an MVP candidate at quarterback and a coach gaining renown for everything from his aggressive decisions and his insightfully fresh news conferences.
Then something happened. The NFL happened.
On Sunday, the Chargers looked out of rhythm for a second consecutive game in a 27-24 loss to New England at SoFi Stadium.
Justin Herbert again struggled as the offense failed to find any consistency after beginning with a 75-yard march for a touchdown.
A late score boosted their statistics and trimmed the difference but couldn’t hide how sluggish the Chargers were offensively for most of the afternoon.
Before their off week, they lost at Baltimore 34-6 with a performance that was even flatter.
“I’m not concerned,” coach Brandon Staley said. “We’ve got to do a better job coaching moving forward. We’ve got to do a better job playing. But, when you play against good teams, you’re going to have games like this.”
The Chargers had problems protecting Herbert. They had too many dropped passes. They finished four of 12 on third down.
Herbert was intercepted once when Austin Ekeler had the ball slip through his hands and another time when Jared Cook turned to his left and the pass went to his right.
Worse still, both pickoffs belonged to Adrian Phillips, a former Charger. Phillips returned the second one for a fourth-quarter touchdown that put the Patriots ahead for good.
“We shouldn’t have lost, for sure,” wide receiver Keenan Allen said. “We beat ourselves. Penalties, turnovers, drops … I thought the Ravens did a damn good job. Today, it was all us.”
Allen dropped a third-down pass late and Mike Williams dropped one early. Over their last two games, the Chargers are seven of 24 on third down.
Their final drive — with New England playing softer to avoid any massive mistakes — was the only one the Chargers kept alive for more than eight plays.
Herbert finished 18 of 35 for 223 yards and two touchdowns. But 80 of those yards came on the final drive, which ended on a 24-yard scoring pass to Joshua Palmer with 40 seconds remaining.
Herbert’s quarterback rating was 66.7, the second-lowest of his 22 career starts. The next lowest came two weeks ago against the Ravens. And the lowest? Last season against New England.
Staley credited the Patriots for making things particularly difficult for his young quarterback, Herbert absorbing three sacks and three other hits.
“We had some protection issues. This guy is getting sped up,“ Staley said about Herbert. “We’re doing everything we can to help those guys [up front].”
Confusion was apparent during the game and afterward as the Chargers attempted to untangle everything that went wrong.
Following the loss to Baltimore, Herbert admitted the Ravens did some things on defense that the Chargers had not seen on tape — disguised looks that caused problems.
Sunday, Staley said the Chargers anticipated the Patriots playing more zone pass coverage than they had all season, noting that New England was somewhat thin at cornerback.
But Herbert said something different.
“We were expecting a lot of man,” he said. “That’s what they’d shown all year but didn’t really get a whole lot of that today.”
Somewhere in the middle of the conflicting remarks, the Chargers have to find a solution. Their offensive output depends on a productive Herbert spreading the ball to various targets.
New England had a 10-minute advantage in time of possession and ran 17 more plays than the Chargers. Staley lamented his offense’s inability to remain disciplined and plod its way down the field.
“What you have to do is be patient … and there’s a lot of yards available,” he said. “That’s going to be the formula against that defense. … I think that’s what we’ll learn.”
After opening a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter, the Chargers went silent on offense. Their defense produced a goal-line stand and forced the Patriots to settle for four field goals.
In the third quarter, safety Derwin James Jr. forced a fumble that teammate Nasir Adderley recovered. In the fourth, James stuffed Brandon Bolden for a one-yard loss on third down with the Chargers leading 17-16.
“I really felt like the game was ours to be won,” Staley said of his thoughts after the James stop. “We just didn’t match up offense to defense. … We were just a little out of rhythm.”
Following New England’s punt, the Chargers’ possession ended with the Patriots the ones scoring — on the interception by Phillips.
That’s how out of rhythm the Chargers were Sunday.
The Chargers lost cornerbacks Asante Samuel Jr. (concussion protocol) and Michael Davis (hamstring) and running back Justin Jackson (quadriceps) during the game. There were no immediate updates afterward.