The Chargers defeated Cincinnati 41-22 Sunday to improve to 7-5 and move into the sixth spot in the AFC playoff race.
The Bengals dropped into the seventh and final position.
Six observations from their victory as underdogs:
Bosa receives concussion clearance: The Chargers and Joey Bosa had a significant scare in the first quarter when the veteran edge rusher was forced to leave the game to be evaluated for a concussion.
Although Bosa didn’t return, Staley said afterward he had been cleared medically. The call to keep Bosa on the bench belonged to Staley and the Chargers.
The situation was doubly concerning since the three-time Pro Bowl player suffered a pair of concussions last year and often has spoken about the mental struggles he dealt with in the aftermath.
“It was our decision to hold him back with his history,” Staley said. “As long as I’m the head coach here, we’re going to be making decisions like that in the best interest of our players.”
Chargers’ rookie cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. recently suffered a second concussion — after being cleared to return — in a three-week span and remains under NFL’s protocols.
Staley said it was Bosa’s desire to return to the game Sunday.
“He was not OK not playing,” Staley said. “He wanted to be out there.”
Getting a jump-start: With the defense and special teams providing some advantageous field position, the Chargers’ offense scored on four of its first five possessions.
Justin Herbert was able to exploit Cincinnati’s secondary with three deep balls during the Chargers’ 24-0 start. He hit Mike Williams for 47 and 41 yards and Jalen Guyton for a 44-yard touchdown.
“The way we came out offensively is our type of recipe,” Staley said. “Getting the ball to Mike in the deep part of the field, getting the ball to J.G. We were aggressive in the deep part of the field.”
The Chargers figured they might be able to take some big shots given the Bengals’ attention to stopping the run and frequent use of eight-man fronts.
“We liked the matchups out there,” Staley said.
After that start, Cincinnati adjusted and took away those downfield opportunities.
Chargers let the Bengals back in: The Chargers allowed the game to tighten in large part because of a pair of Austin Ekeler fumbles that Cincinnati turned into touchdowns.
Entering Sunday, Ekeler had lost nine fumbles in 799 career touches. He fumbled against the Bengals after making a catch in the second quarter and then again after a third-quarter reception.
“I’m not worried about the guy,” Staley said. “No one’s going to take that harder than him. He’s got to know when to say when.”
The turnovers helped the Bengals come back from their 24-0 hole and made the Chargers work considerably harder than it appeared they might have to at one point.
“I’m definitely not good with it,” Staley said of his team’s inability to maintain control of the game. “When you’re up 24-6 and you’ve got the momentum, you have it. When you turn the football over, I’m not good with that because that’s our doing.”
He talked about the Chargers having “a lot of moments in there that we can improve from and learn from.”
Another of those moments came in the fourth quarter when Guyton was tackled short of the goal line and reached out toward the end zone. He lost the ball upon landing, but the play was blown dead.
“That’s not what we’re coaching,” Staley said of Guyton’s desperate lunge. “That’s not what we’re going to allow around here.”
Herbert all over the field: Beyond his usual quarterbacking duties, Herbert had an especially eventful day. On Ekeler’s first fumble, he chased down Cincinnati safety Jessie Bates III, who was sprinting toward the end zone with the turnover.
Herbert, who is 6 foot 6, 236 pounds, tackled the 6-1, 200-pound Bates, knocking him sideways. The hit isn’t one most teams want to see their franchise quarterback execute.
“You don't really have a choice other than to go tackle him,” Herbert said. “You don't want to be put in that situation. But I’m glad that we got the stop there.”
Earlier in the second quarter, Herbert was on the receiving end of a trick play the Chargers used for a two-point conversion.
He handed off to Ekeler, who started to his left before flipping the ball to a crossing Keenan Allen. The veteran wide receiver then hit an open Herbert in the end zone.
Herbert celebrated with a massive spike.
A few happy returns: Andre Roberts began the game with a 48-yard kickoff return, setting up the Chargers’ offense at its 45-yard line. He finished with 99 yards on three kickoff returns and 18 yards on a pair of punt returns.
For the Chargers, such production has been a rarity.
“Our special teams showed up today in a big way,” Staley said. “I really felt like for the first time this season that our kicking game won us a game.”
Dustin Hopkins missed an extra point but did connect on two 43-yard field goals.
Between the special teams and defense, the Chargers’ offense began three drives in Cincinnati territory and three more within 10 yards of midfield.
“It changes our offense,” Herbert said. “It’s much easier to get up and get going … just makes our job so easier.”
Chargers go on the blitz: With Bosa out, Staley said the Chargers blitzed more in an attempt to bolster their pass rush and give the Bengals more personnel groupings with which to deal.
The results were impressive. Safeties Derwin James and Nasir Adderley teamed up to sack Joe Burrow and linebacker Drue Tranquill also got to him.
Edge rusher Uchenna Nwosu led the Chargers with two of their six sacks. Afterward linebacker Kyzir White said Nwosu played looser Sunday after being concerned about an off-field issue.
Drafted in the second round in 2018, Nwosu is in the final year of his contract. White was drafted two rounds later the same year.
“He’s just playing free,” White said. “He’s not thinking. We came in together and you can be worried about your future a little bit, what’s going to happen. You start psyching yourself out. I think he’s just playing free.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.