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Bolts crash AFC playoff race with ‘masterful’ drive

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Bolts crash AFC playoff race with ‘masterful’ drive

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Inside a celebratory Los Angeles Chargers postgame locker room, music blared, the energy was palpable and wide receiver Mike Williams offered a fitting description of the scene.

“Turnt,” Williams said, smiling.

“I’d have to agree with him,” quarterback Justin Herbert said with a grin.

Moments earlier, Herbert led a six-play, 52-yard drive with 44 seconds remaining that resulted in kicker Cameron Dicker drilling a 43-yard field goal to lift the Chargers to a 17-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.

“He’s got ice in his veins,” edge rusher Khalil Mack said of Dicker, who has converted two game-winning field goals for the Bolts this season.

The triumph, coupled with the Las Vegas Raiders defeating the New England Patriots, enabled the Chargers to jump from outside the AFC playoff picture to the No. 6 seed.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to keep playing football,” Herbert said. “If we just attack it week by week, we’ll see what happens.”

With three games remaining, including an upcoming matchup against the Indianapolis Colts (4-9) on Monday Night Football, the Chargers (8-6) are in control of their playoff future as they attempt to earn their first postseason berth since 2018 and first under second-year coach Brandon Staley.

“Just keep fighting,” said Williams, who caught passes for 16 and 25 yards on the winning drive.

Sunday’s game encapsulated the Chargers’ roller-coaster season, which has included everything from a preseason billing as an AFC West and even Super Bowl favorite to placing star edge Joey Bosa and cornerback J.C. Jackson on injured reserve and playing only two complete games with Williams and fellow wideout Keenan Allen.

“We’re a connected team,” Staley said. “Because we’re connected, it’s allowed us to endure all that’s happened this season, because that is the only explanation. There’s no other way to explain it. Otherwise, we would be 3-9 or worse.”

Herbert, 24, finished Sunday’s outing 28-of-42 passing for 313 yards with two interceptions and became the only player in NFL history to have 4,000 passing yards in each of his first three seasons. It also was his 22nd career game with 300 passing yards, which is five more than any other player before turning 25 years old in NFL history.

“He had his best when his best was required,” Staley said. “You saw all the things that make him special there. His resilience, his poise, his playmaking.”

The offense started fast with a 14-play, 68-yard opening drive to take a 7-0 lead, but the Titans answered in the second quarter when Derrick Henry rushed 4 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 7.

And the Bolts’ offense, in the meantime, had fallen flat.

After the opening score, the Chargers punted on five of their next seven possessions, and Herbert threw two passes that were intercepted, including one in the end zone with 12 seconds remaining in the first half.

“We would have loved to put up a bunch more points. We didn’t play well as an offense, and it starts with me,” Herbert said. “Can’t turn over the ball like that. I have so much respect for the defense for coming up with stops like that.”

After allowing Henry’s score, the Bolts forced the Titans to punt on five of seven drives. L.A. safety Nasir Adderley intercepted quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and the Titans missed a 51-yard field goal attempt on the other two possessions.

“We have a really good defensive culture right now,” Staley said. “We have a lot of guys that believe in each other. What we’ve had to do is have people step up and play significant roles and it has brought out the best in them.”

In the fourth quarter, Herbert found Allen for a 31-yard completion and running back Austin Ekeler gained 15 yards and a touchdown on consecutive carries to put the Bolts up, 14-7, with 10:28 remaining.

However, the Bolts’ stout defensive performance gave way to Tannehill leading an 11-play, 74-yard drive, and Henry pushed Tannehill across the goal line for a one-yard score to tie the game, 14-14.

With 44 seconds left on the clock, Herbert twice found Williams and also completed a six-yard pass to tight end Gerald Everett to put the Chargers in field goal territory.

“It was a masterful drive,” said defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day, who had five tackles, including one for a loss, in his return from a knee injury that sidelined him a week ago. “With a quarterback like [Herbert] we always have a chance.”

Tannehill finished 15-of-22 passing for 165 yards and an interception. He was sacked four times. Henry rushed for 104 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries.

“A lot of things we can get better at,” said Mack, who had five tackles and a pass deflection. “But we tried to give the offense a chance.”

The Chargers played a second consecutive game without safety Derwin James Jr., who is nursing a quadriceps injury. Staley expressed optimism that James will return and potentially Bosa, who has been on injured reserve since undergoing groin surgery after Week 3.

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