Chargers-Vikings should be close encounters of the nail-biting kind

The NFL standings say the Chargers (5-3) are two games better than Minnesota (3-5).

In a league that embraces deception, not even the standings can be trusted.

“You can’t really look at someone’s record,” Chargers running back Austin Ekeler said. “You have to say, ‘Hey, this is gonna be another NFL team. They’re gonna play as hard as they can just like we are.’ There are no easy wins in the NFL.”

Very true. Also very true this season for the Chargers and Vikings is that there are no easy losses.

Save for the Chargers’ 34-6 no-show in Baltimore last month, these teams have lived on some of the slimmest margins in the league.

The average final score for the Chargers: 25.1-24.9. The average final score for the Vikings: 24.3-23.9. The Chargers have been outscored by their opponents by two points. The Vikings have outscored opponents by three.

So, Sunday at SoFi Stadium, these two figure to spend most of the afternoon separated by little more than the width of the line of scrimmage.

In the end — meaning the closing seconds — this prospect could favor the Chargers. They are 4-2 in one-score games while the Vikings are 2-5.

The Chargers last weekend dominated the final minutes to strong-arm a victory away from Philadelphia on the road. The Vikings blew a two-touchdown second-half lead and lost in overtime at Baltimore.

“You know that it’s now or never,” Chargers rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater said. “This is what the game is going to be determined by, if we can get that first down over and over again. It’s really cool because you get to take on the mindset that the game is under our control.

“As long as we do what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to be fine. I’ve noticed that within this team, everybody always has full confidence that we’re going to do what we need to do. There’s never panic. When the game is in our control, we have a lot of confidence.”

Similar to the win over the Eagles, the Chargers slammed the door on Washington with a late, clock-consuming drive. They beat Kansas City with a final-minute score and subsequent defensive stop.

They tacked on a fourth-quarter touchdown to smother Las Vegas’ hopes and scored twice in the final minutes to topple Cleveland.

The Chargers’ lone last-call failure came in Week 2, when they were unable to prevent Dallas from winning on a game-ending field goal after having tied the score four minutes earlier.

“As soon as you learn to put away games like that I think you feel more confident going into the next one,” quarterback Justin Herbert said. “We’ve gone through it. We know what to do. We know how to execute. So whenever you go into the next one, you hopefully remember the experience that you gained.”

The victory in Philadelphia was classic close-out content worthy of NFL Films narration. The Chargers used all but the game’s final two seconds with a drive that lasted 15 plays and ate 6:05, with kicker Dustin Hopkins connecting from 29 yards out.

Quarterback Justin Herbert and the Chargers offense came through with many big plays on the deciding drive against the Eagles last week.

(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

The keys to the possession, coach Brandon Staley explained, were mixing run and pass plays (the Chargers employed seven of each), protecting Herbert and remaining aggressive.

The Chargers faced only two third downs and both were manageable: third and six and third and two. Though they converted neither, they avoided obvious passing situations, preventing the crowd from becoming more involved.

“That’s when those drives go sideways,” Staley said.

The Chargers did convert both fourth downs and picked up five first downs on the drive. They overcame a false-start penalty and had four players — other than Herbert — handle the ball.

“If you’ve ever … watched the opposing offense [do that] — when you never get the chance to go out and try to win the game — it’s so frustrating,” offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. “Being able to do that is very satisfying.”

The Chargers could get another shot at sealing their own fate Sunday against a Minnesota team that already has played three overtime games. The Vikings’ only non-one-score finish so far was a 30-17 victory over Seattle in Week 3.

So things could turn tense and crazy at SoFi Stadium during an NFL season that has been impossible to forecast. Or maybe everyone saw Jacksonville beating Buffalo and Miami topping Baltimore over the last week.

“Sundays, it’s wild, man, especially this year,” Ekeler said. “We’re seeing teams and saying, ‘Oh, they’re probably going to beat this team.’ Then, nope. … That’s what I love about this game. It’s just so competitive.”

Yeah, the Chargers are two games better than Minnesota. That’s what the standings say, and the standings in January will mean everything.

Until then, though, they mean nothing, nothing at all.

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