On Sunday, the Chargers will play one of their most important games of the season.
Unless the game means nothing.
A victory at Denver or a loss by Baltimore clinches the AFC’s No. 5 seed for the Chargers, who have the same 10-6 record as the Ravens but hold the tiebreaker because of a better conference record.
The NFL on Wednesday set the kickoff of Baltimore’s regular-season finale at Cincinnati for 10 a.m., West Coast time.
That’s three hours, 25 minutes before the Chargers and Broncos will begin, meaning the Chargers should know by kickoff if the result of their game still holds significance.
Coach Brandon Staley said he’ll prepare his players this week like any other of the season, explaining the starters will continue to receive most of the work in practice.
But he said he and his staff will be ready to adjust if the outcome of the Ravens’ game dictates a different approach.
“You have to take the facts on the ground, as they happen in real time, to make your determinations,” Staley said. “That’s what we’re going to do. Once we find out about that game, we’ll make the appropriate decisions moving forward, just take it case-by-case.”
If the Ravens win or tie and the Chargers lose, the Chargers would drop to the No. 6 seed, which would mean a wild-card round trip to Kansas City, Buffalo or Cincinnati.
The team that finishes fifth will play at the winner of the game Saturday night between Tennessee and Jacksonville, those two battling for the AFC South championship.
“Obviously, we’re not going to know until Sunday,” Staley said. “Our approach this week is to go beat the Broncos and to play our best.”
The Chargers seem to be peaking at the right time, having won four in a row and clinching the franchise’s first postseason berth in four years.
They also are coming off one of their most complete offensive performances of the season in a 31-10 win over the Rams. Before that game, the Chargers’ offense had been sputtering.
So, also in play Sunday for Staley is the idea of sustaining momentum and finishing strong heading into the playoffs.
“Let’s keep it going,” wide receiver Mike Williams said. “I feel like we’ve got a rhythm going. We’re in a great spot to keep it going. That’s our job to go out there and play. But, whatever the coaches decide, I’m with it.”
During the franchise’s most recent playoff year, the 2018 Chargers faced a similar situation entering the final Sunday of the regular season.
Also playing in Denver, that team had a chance to win the AFC West with a victory and a loss by Kansas City. The NFL set its schedule so those games started simultaneously.
But the drama faded quickly as the Chiefs jumped to a 21-3 halftime lead over the then-Oakland Raiders en route to a 35-3 win. The Chargers beat the Broncos 23-9 in a game that ended up being otherwise meaningless.
The 2022-23 Chargers also are attempting to ready edge rusher Joey Bosa for the postseason after he missed 12 games because of core-muscle surgery. The four-time Pro Bowler played 24 snaps in his return Sunday.
Coming back this week is Derwin James Jr., the team’s star safety. A quadriceps injury and concussion have limited him to 25 snaps over the last four weeks, meaning James might need some work even if the game in Denver lacks impact in the standings.
Staley said James would return to practice in full Thursday, the Chargers’ first on-field workout of the week.
“When it comes to being a player, you cannot be half in, half out of a game,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “So, for us, we’re a full-go.… If Coach wants to make that decision, they’re going to have to drag us off.”
There are several Chargers who could use extra time to heal, including right tackle Trey Pipkins III, who has been dealing with a knee sprain most of the season.
Quarterback Justin Herbert appeared on the team’s injury report Wednesday because of a sore left shoulder coming out of the game against the Rams but Staley said Herbert would be a full participant in practice Thursday.