Coming off a four-touchdown loss at home, the Chargers on Sunday had given away nearly all of a 20-point lead as the midway mark of the fourth quarter approached.
It would be overly dramatic to suggest their season was facing a collapse of biblical measures.
It would not be misleading, however, to note that things changed when safety Derwin James Jr. heard a voice booming from above.
The public-address announcer at NRG Stadium helped spur the Chargers as they rallied back to secure a 34-24 victory over Houston.
With the score 27-21 and just under 10 minutes to go, the Texans forced a DeAndre Carter fumble on a kickoff return, Houston taking over at the Chargers’ 16-yard line.
The stadium, with its roof closed, was noisier than it had been all afternoon as James and his defensive teammates trotted back out.
“The little announcer guy [was saying], ‘Hey, we’re back in the game! Get loud!’ ” James recalled later. “I could hear that. … It kind of [ticked] me off. I’m like, ‘OK, we gotta end this game.’ ”
The Chargers stopped the Texans and then some, a sack by Jerry Tillery forcing Houston backward and leading to a field goal that closed the difference to 27-24.
Their offense then did the rallying after having punted on its first three second-half possessions. The Chargers went 84 yards in 12 plays, consuming more than six minutes before securing the game on Austin Ekeler’s third touchdown of the day.
“You gotta put the fire out,” James said. “When they got that turnover … if they score, they’re gonna take the lead. In my mind, we had to get a stop. Then our offense did a great job closing ’em out.”
Though they stumbled in the second half Sunday, the Chargers still found a way to rebound from their 38-10 loss last weekend to Jacksonville, a result that felt weightier than just one defeat.
They answered by dominating the first half against the Texans, opening a 27-7 edge after two quarters and impressively protecting quarterback Justin Herbert, who is playing with fractured rib cartilage.
“We’ve faced some adversity, which is kind of the best way to start a season because it’s going to tell you a lot about your team,” Ekeler said. “I felt like we were able to put something together today even though it was still a battle.”
Ekeler broke through after going without a touchdown over the Chargers’ first three games. He also amassed 60 rushing yards in 13 carries after gaining only 80 yards in 32 attempts in Weeks 1-3.
He scored on runs of 10 and 20 yards before taking a short pass from Herbert and diving into the front corner of the end zone for the game-sealing 14-yard touchdown with 2:28 to play.
“Finally, huh?” Ekeler said. “Finally.” Reminded that he scored three times, he added: “Got some catching up to do. We’re gonna keep this going as long as we can.”
The Chargers’ final, clinching drive included conversions on third and two, Herbert to Mike Williams for 13 yards, and third and six, Herbert to Williams again, this time for 11 yards.
There also was a conversion on fourth and two from their 45-yard line. On that play, Herbert faked a handoff to Ekeler and then rolled to his right and passed to Ekeler in the flat for what became a 21-yard gain.
“That’s kind of been a mantra, right, the last couple years,” center Corey Linsley said. “Taking ownership, knowing when we got to close the game out. We have all the confidence in the world we can do it. It’s just about executing.”
Herbert finished 27 of 39 for 340 yards and two touchdowns, his first scoring toss going to tight end Gerald Everett from 18 yards out just three minutes into the game.
The third-year quarterback looked more comfortable and confident in his second game playing with damaged rib cartilage. Herbert was sacked only once, on a play that he aborted and slid just before the line of scrimmage.
The Texans were not credited with any other quarterback hits, according to the NFL’s official statistics. Herbert did absorb a shot to the back on a play that was nullified by offsetting penalties.
“It’s getting better,” he said afterward of his injury. “Thankful for the offensive line for keeping me upright.”
That offensive line included a rookie starting his first NFL game. Jamaree Salyer was forced into the lineup because of the loss of Pro Bowl left tackle Rashawn Slater, who suffered a torn biceps last weekend.
Salyer did more than just survive against the likes of Houston defensive end Jerry Hughes. He held firm with a performance that was capped by Staley calling him “a stud.”
“I felt the time that I had back in the pocket,” Herbert said. “For a guy to be able to step up — first NFL game, first time playing — I thought he did an incredible job.”
And the Chargers did just enough to win and level out a once-chaotic start that now has them sitting at 2-2.