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Alexander: For Chargers, Game 17 an extra chance to catch up

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Yes, the Chargers have backed themselves into a corner. (Is that the origin of the “backs to the wall” expression that they seem to be using so frequently this week?)

And yes, not only losing but getting blown out by the now 4-11 Houston Texans last Sunday is inexcusable, even with a stack of positive COVID-19 tests that severely tested the “next man up” theory. Remember, Houston’s lineup was decimated, too.

But this has been a season of chaos throughout the NFL, and maybe it is now to the Chargers’ advantage that there is a 17th game on their schedule.

They no longer control their own playoff fate, but there are two weekends left to rectify things rather than just one. At 8-7, the range of possibilities goes from sweeping the Broncos this week and the Raiders next and perhaps climbing as high as a No. 5 seed (which would require a lot of help) to losing both games and going home at 8-9. But consider that outside of AFC West champion Kansas City (11-4), no one else in the conference has clinched a playoff spot and 12 contenders are still dreaming those postseason dreams.

Chaos. It’s magnificent, even if the main cause of it is much less so.

When the NFL first started talking of an expanded schedule in the summer of 2019, one concept batted around was an 18-game schedule with a clause that no player could participate in more than 16 games. Unless a quarterback exemption was included, clearly there was no way that was ever going to fly, football people never being particularly enamored with the concept of load management.

As it turned out, the league officially approved the 17-game schedule this past March. COVID has taken care of the days off.

But has the 17-game schedule warped the league in another way, throwing players off their rhythm and in fact helping contribute to that chaos?

“I guess it’s going to be a factor next week” when Game 17 arrives, veteran defensive lineman Linval Joseph said during Wednesday’s Zoom session. “Everything is still new, so I’m just trying to learn how to adapt and how to process everything, and I’m just trying to be the best I can be to help this team win.

“It’s a total new league. Can you be a part of it or can you not? That’s what it really boils down to.”

Football players and coaches are creatures of habit and routine. Since 1978, they’ve been playing 16-game seasons. Since 2001, the final game has always been somewhere in the neighborhood of New Year’s Day. Now they’ve moved the finish line back.

But Chargers coach Brandon Staley maintained that there aren’t that many players in the league who are that set in their ways.

“It’s a really young league, so I don’t know if people have the amount of experience” to be thrown off by the extra game, he said. “I know that Linval (in his 12th year) and Chris Harris (Jr., in his 11th) will agree with you, for sure.

“I just think that (for different) guys, the 17th game is going to impact them in a lot of different ways – financially, health-wise, it has a lot of implications. And so for players, for coaches, for everybody in the NFL, it’s just sorting through that.”

Bottom line: If they say 17, you play 17, and you figure out how to get it done. And if that’s the most complex part of the job in this particular season, consider yourself lucky.

“You’re dealing with two different parts of your team, the injury part of your team and then the COVID part of your team,” Staley said. “And the thing about both of those things is they can (change at) a moment’s notice.

“Most of the time you’re putting plans in place you kind of know who’s going to be there, who’s not. And then 24 hours before the game, an hour before the game, things are changing. So all you can do is stay connected as a team, coaches, players, staff … stay connected, stay positive and do our best to figure it out.”

It can be taxing. Joseph talked of how the Houston game “just felt different. If you want to say it was (lack of) energy, you want to say it was lack of production, last week wasn’t our best week. … Just a combination of everything, you know? That’s when COVID was really attacking last week. It just felt like every day a new player, two players, on their team and our team, it was just – it was out of control, you know.

“This is the new normal. You know, you just gotta accept that now. You just got to keep moving forward. You got to just bring your best effort each and every week. I felt like last week we didn’t do that. And I feel like this week we have to make up for what we did last week.”

If it was frustrating and confounding on the field in Houston, imagine how running back Austin Ekeler felt watching at home while in the COVID protocols.

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“Man, it reminded me of last year, sitting at home with a blown-out hamstring,” he said, recalling that during one loss then he was so mad he started doing push-ups. “It didn’t get to that point (this time). But I was definitely pretty disappointed.”

He’s back this week, as is Pro Bowl defensive end Joey Bosa, as the roster gets closer to something resembling full strength. And if the past is prologue, maybe that’s a sign.

“This reminds me of when I went 9-7 in my second year and we won the Super Bowl,” Joseph said, referencing the 2011 New York Giants. “We started off hot, got a lot of guys hurt, you know what I’m saying? And then, boom – we came together at the right time and we didn’t lose any more games, and we won the Super Bowl. That’s exactly how I feel right now.”

Stranger things have already happened in the NFL this season. Might as well think big.

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@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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