The Los Angeles Chargers entered Sunday behind all but four teams in the AFC standings. That remains their place in the conference at the end of the day despite some close calls along the way.
With only five weeks remaining in the regular season, the Chargers face a herculean task in their efforts to return to the playoffs. Four teams that entered the week ahead of the Chargers in the AFC wild-card race finished Sunday with wins. All have a record of at least 5-6, and two of them — the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans — hold the tiebreaker over Los Angeles after head-to-head victories earlier in the year.
Not all of those victories came easily, however. The Steelers found themselves trailing the winless Cincinnati Bengals well into the third quarter after punting or turning the ball over on all but one of five of their first seven possessions. The poor offensive showing resulted in Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin benching quarterback Mason Rudolph in favor of undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges.
That decision proved to be the turning point in the game, as Hodges tossed a 70-yard touchdown to wide receiver James Washington on his fourth play in relief. Though the Bengals would tie up the game on the following drive, the Steelers never trailed again, ultimately retaking the lead early in the fourth quarter and holding on for a 16-10 victory.
While the Chargers continue to lose ground in the wild-card race, they did receive some help within their division. The Oakland Raiders scored just three points Sunday while managing to give up 34 points to the suddenly rejuvenated New York Jets. The loss drops Oakland to 6-5 and, with another matchup against Los Angeles on Dec. 22, have put themselves in serious jeopardy of falling down the AFC West standings before the end of the season.
The Chargers return from the bye week next Sunday for a road game against the 3-8 Denver Broncos and a tilt with the Jacksonville Jaguars the week after. Los Angeles then returns home for matchups with the Minnesota Vikings and Raiders before closing the season at the Kansas City Chiefs.
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH