Chargers top Raiders, look ready for AFC West contention behind Justin Herbert, Khalil Mack

Last year's Chargers season ended in heartbreak.

On Sunday, they started their 2022 campaign with catharsis.

Behind a scintillating effort from quarterback Justin Herbert, Los Angeles picked up a 24-19 win over the division rival Las Vegas Raiders to gain an early edge in the AFC West. They did so against the same Raiders franchise that beat them in overtime January in a season-finale clash with the last spot in the AFC playoffs at stake.

The Chargers appeared to be running away with the game early and built a 24-10 lead in the third quarter. The Raiders rallied to keep the pressure on, but a Chargers franchise known for a history of late-game collapses held on this time to secure the season-opening win. Las Vegas quarterback Derek Carr found new Raiders receiver Davante Adams for a fourth-quarter touchdown to cut their deficit. After a failed two-point conversion, they trailed 24-19.

The Chargers then punted the ball back to the Raiders with 3:30 remaining after a three-and-out drive stalled at their own 32-yard line. But first-year Charger Khalil Mack's third sack of the day ended the Raiders drive on downs with 1:52 remaining, allowing Los Angeles to run out the clock.

Herbert makes otherworldly throws to kick off MVP campaign

The play secured victory after a three-touchdown effort from Herbert, a popular MVP pick whose precision and strength were on full display against a Raiders defense with few answers. Herbert set up the first Chargers touchdown by finding Keenan Allen with a 42-yard dart as the Pro Bowl receiver found a soft spot in the Raiders secondary while surrounded by three defenders.

Herbert finished that drive with a 1-yard touchdown toss to fullback Zander Horvath. Keenan Allen eventually left the game with a hamstring injury, but Herbert kept the Chargers passing game on point. His next touchdown was a work of art. After an interception of Carr set the Chargers up with a short field, Herbert looked up to find Allen's replacement DeAndre Carter flanked by a pair of Raiders defenders in the end zone. No matter.

Herbert delivered a 23-yard strike to split the Raiders defenders and find Carter in the end zone to give the Chargers a 17-3 lead.

After the Raiders cut their deficit to 17-10, Herbert produced another candidate to lead Sunday's highlight reel. On second-and-1 from the Las Vegas 18, the Raiders found pressure with a six-man rush and forced Herbert to scramble to his left.

As safety Johnathan Abram forced Herbert to retreat, Herbert spied tight end Gerald Everett in tight single coverage down the left sideline. Herbert jumped backward and delivered a dart with both of his feet in the air that hit a backpedaling Everett in his hands at the 5-yard line. Everett did the work from there, overpowering safety Roderic Teamer to find the end zone.

The score capped Herbert's three-touchdown effort as he completed 26-of-34 passes for 279 yards without a turnover. He spread the ball around while connecting with 11 different receivers, none of whom he targeted more than four times.

Davante Adams performs in unbalanced Raiders offense

Carr, meanwhile, was hyper-focused on Adams, who joined the Raiders as a high-profile offseason acquisition from the Green Bay Packers. Adams produced, tallying 10 catches for 141 yards and a touchdown on 17 targets. Meanwhile, tight end Darren Waller and receiver Hunter Renfrow saw six targets each, and no other Raiders receiver saw more than two looks from Carr.

Sep 11, 2022; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) is pressured by Las Vegas Raiders defensive tackle Bilal Nichols (91) as he sets to throw a pass in the first quarter at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Is Justin Herbert ready for an MVP campaign? His first priority is actually getting the Chargers to the playoffs. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Reuters)

Carr faced repeated pressure from an aggressive Chargers front anchored by Joey Bosa and five-time All-Pro Mack, who joined the Chargers in the offseason from the Chicago Bears. His Chargers debut was a success as he tallied six tackles, four quarterback hits and three sacks, the last of which ended the Raiders' last-ditch comeback on a fourth-down pass play. Bosa tallied 1.5 sacks of his own as Carr took five sacks on the day. By comparison, Herbert took zero.

Carr finished the day completing 22-of-37 passes for 295 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.

The AFC West is loaded this year, and the perennial champion Kansas City Chiefs likewise made their mark on Sunday as Patrick Mahomes threw five touchdowns in a 44-21 blowout of the Arizona Cardinals. Until proven otherwise, they're the favorites. Next week's Thursday night matchup between the Chiefs and Chargers is shaping up to be an early season high-stakes showdown in football's toughest division.