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After the Chargers Chargered again, pressure mounts on Coach Brandon Staley

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Three minutes past midnight in the hushed visitors locker room, more than half an hour after the newest debacle of his franchise’s tortured history, Justin Herbert sat at his locker, facing shellshocked teammates. He wore a thousand-yard stare and was still dressed in shoulder pads and full Los Angeles Chargers uniform down to his bare feet. He thought about the game that had just transpired, a dream that had dissolved into a nightmare. He had only begun to reckon with the fallout of an impossible collapse.

Across the room, teammates packed bags and hugged farewell. Equipment staffers wheeled out carts. They muttered expletives in quiet tones. One Charger blurted to a teammate, “That’s something we got to answer for for the rest of our f—— lives.”

The Chargers have endured playoff heartbreaks so ingrained they require only one image to open the wounds: Nate Kaeding’s shank, Marlon McCree’s fumble, Philip Rivers’s torn ACL. Saturday night at TIAA Bank Field may have topped them all. The Chargers lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 31-30, despite building a 27-0 lead in the first half as they intercepted Trevor Lawrence four times. Blessed with Herbert’s ballistic quarterbacking, they scored only three points in the final 34 minutes. Equipped with the pass rushing might of Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack, they yielded 24 points after halftime.

How it happened: Real-time updates from Jags-Chargers

The Chargers at once melted down and folded under the weight of their own history. They committed a rash of undisciplined penalties, including Bosa’s game-flipping helmet slam. They defended Jacksonville’s up-tempo attack as if the Jaguars had performed alchemy. They missed a 40-yard field goal. They yielded one final drive, highlighted by Travis Etienne’s 25-yard run on fourth down that set up Riley Patterson’s 36-yard, game-winning field goal. In the parlance that sticks to them now more than ever, they Chargered.

“I’ve seen this movie too many times,” Chargers tight end Gerald Everett said.

The future, now, becomes the question for Los Angeles. Coach Brandon Staley entered the game under fire for his decision to play his starters in a Week 18 game irrelevant to the standings, which led to star wideout Mike Williams suffering a fractured bone in his back and being ruled out for the game against the Jaguars. That decision, combined with Saturday night’s disaster, may convince Los Angeles to seek a new coach, with the ability to dangle the possibility of coaching Herbert to the top candidates, starting with Sean Payton.

Firing Staley would be easier said than paid for, especially for a franchise that is a tenant in its home stadium and is building a new practice facility. Staley still has two years remaining on his contract. Securing Payton would require not only shipping draft compensation to the New Orleans Saints, but also a contract likely to reset the coaching salary market. What Chargers ownership wants to do is one thing. What it can afford might be another.

If Staley survives, he will enter the 2023 season under immense pressure. The gift of Herbert, a quarterback on an inexpensive contract who can make throws even peers only dream of, has gone unfulfilled. He is only in his third season. But quarterbacks of his pedigree, when properly supported, flourish by that stage. Patrick Mahomes won the Super Bowl in his third season. Draft classmate Joe Burrow made the Super Bowl in his second. Herbert has one catastrophic loss in his lone playoff appearance. It stands as an organizational failure, from team owner Dean Spanos to General Manager Tom Telesco to Staley.

“This is the toughest way that you can lose in the playoffs,” Staley said. “Certainly, with the way we started the game, that’s the team I know we’re capable of being. We just didn’t finish the game.”

Brewer: In an age of QB brilliance, there’s no one quite like Justin Herbert

The Chargers’ litany of self-inflicted damage could be repurposed as an instruction manual for how to squander a season. The Chargers should have built a larger lead to begin with — they kicked two field goals in the first half from inside the Jaguars’ 5-yard line, including one after Herbert missed Keenan Allen wide-open in the zone. And blowing that lead began with what seemed like an innocuous gaffe.

Late in the second quarter, leading 27-0, the Chargers had a chance to control the ball into halftime. On third and one, they called a play that included a “kill” to a different play: They would run up the middle unless Herbert saw a specific defensive alignment at the line, in which case he would switch to the second play — an end-around to a receiver streaking in motion.

There was a problem, and it made the play choice baffling. All week, the Chargers had practiced the play with veteran wideout DeAndre Carter taking the handoff. But Carter had been sidelined midgame with an injury. So the Chargers instead attempted an end-around to Michael Bandy, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound wide receiver out the University of San Diego who had never taken a handoff in his two-year NFL career.

Here was the Chargers in a nutshell: a misguided coaching decision built atop a lack of depth at a premium position. Bandy collided with Herbert and muffed the handoff, diving on the ball five yards behind the line. The resulting punt allowed the Jaguars a possession with ample time remaining before half, which they used to score their first touchdown.

On the Jaguars’ first possession of the second half, which followed the Chargers’s stalled drive, Bosa lined up in the neutral zone on what would have been a drive-killing sack by Mack. Etienne hauled in a first-down reception the next play, and Lawrence hit wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr. three plays later. A blowout had suddenly become a two-possession game.

“That’s the halftime swing right there,” Jones said. “It was everything.”

The Chargers seemed to stabilize themselves with a nearly seven-minute drive in the fourth quarter while holding a 30-20 lead. Staley eschewed his trademark fourth down aggression and opted for a 40-yard field goal, which Cameron Dicker hooked left of the goal posts.

“Time just freezes,” Everett said. “They start rallying, coming back, they’re building their morale. Their confidence is growing. All we could do is just sit back and watch.”

The Jaguars raced down the field again, using the fast tempo that changed the game until Lawrence found Christian Kirk for a nine-yard touchdown. Bosa slammed his helmet as he left the field, drawing his second personal foul of the game. The penalty convinced Coach Doug Pederson to go for two. Lawrence leaped over the line from the 1, which meant Patterson’s field goal would win it rather sending the game to overtime.

The Chargers managed five yards on a three and out in response. The Jaguars used Etienne’s burst around the right end as the linchpin of their game-winning drive. To the end, the Chargers had no answer for the Jaguars’ fast-paced attack, which challenged Staley’s reputation as a defensive guru. Safety Drue Tranquill said it exposed Los Angeles’s subpar conditioning and tackling.

“We got to be able to get our cleats in the grass and not have breakdowns,” Tranquill said. “We gave them a few explosive plays just on breakdowns. Coach Staley was saying early in the week, ‘We have to make them beat us.’ We beat ourselves.

“When it’s 27-0, you fully expect to win the game on defense. It shouldn’t matter what the offense does. When you’re up 27-0, you should win the game defensively.”

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The Chargers’ failings ran headlong into Lawrence, a 23-year study in poise, resilience and the virtues of quality hair conditioner. He completed four of his first 16 passes and threw four interceptions, three of them to cornerback Asante Samuel Jr., becoming the first quarterback since Craig Morton in the 1978 Super Bowl to throw four picks in the first half of a playoff game. After his fourth interception, Lawrence completed 24 of his final 31 passes for 258 yards and four touchdowns.

“I knew he was fine regardless, because that’s the type of guy he is,” Jones said. “If he throws four picks or if he’s throwing for 500 yards, he’s the same guy. He has that calm about him. So it’s easy to rally behind him.”

Triumph will probably come for Herbert, but Saturday night he had to digest shock and disappointment. Eventually, he rose from his seat and changed into sweats. He paced into his postgame news conference with his head up. “Sorry to keep you guys waiting,” he said.

“It’s really tough, because we think really highly of our team,” Herbert said. “That’s a special group of guys in that locker room. They deserve better, and it didn’t go our way. Definitely tough to process, but got to keep it going.”

The Chargers must determine which coach leads them next year, whether it is Staley or somebody new. Late Saturday night, Staley slung on a black backpack with the Chargers logo. His wife squeezed his shoulder as he walked from the locker room down the tunnel. He headed to the team bus, past equipment trucks and an ambulance, out of another Chargers fiasco and toward an uncertain future.

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