Los Angeles Chargers on a quest to break out of up-and-down pattern

Austin Ekeler and the Chargers never got completely on track against the Broncos, continuing the team's erratic play in the past six weeks. David Zalubowski/AP

DENVER -- What is it about a team that allows it to play really well one week and then fall apart the next? And then does it again?

I suppose if coaches truly knew that, they'd all be Super Bowl-bound. It's a human game played by human beings with myriad of emotions, schemes, quirks, questions about family and who ate what when.

That said, how can the Los Angeles Chargers perform at a high level in Week 9 against the Philadelphia Eagles and Week 11 vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers but sub-par in Week 10 against the Minnesota Vikings and, most recently, against the Denver Broncos? And how can the Chargers break out of this pattern and put together consecutive wins for the first time since early October?

The Chargers aren't the only team facing this problem. Every team in the AFC West is 6-5 except for the Kansas City Chiefs, who have won four in a row and stand in first place at 7-4.

"I was thinking about that today," running back Austin Ekeler said after Sunday's 28-13 loss at the Broncos. "We win a game, we lose a game, then we win a game, then we lose. Where is this mentality? However we capture this mentality after a loss and how we apply it to practice this week. I hope we can do that, but it's different going in after a loss and I don't like that.

"You'd like to have the same mindset going in regardless of whether we won or lost or whether you had a good game or a bad game. We are human, so we feel the emotions so we do our best to come in and have that consistent mindset that it’s a new week, it's a new opponent."

And this week that new opponent is the 7-4 Cincinnati Bengals, who are one game ahead of the Chargers in a crowded AFC wild-card race entering Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m. ET, CBS). The Bengals come in hot, having beaten the Steelers 41-10 this past week and the Las Vegas Raiders 32-13 the week before.

But the Bengals, who are one game behind the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North, have also had their share of ups and downs, having recently lost to the Cleveland Browns 41-16 in Week 9 and to the lowly New York Jets the week before that. So they're probably asking themselves the same questions the Chargers are. Five of their games have been decided by three points, with two of those going to overtime.

"I think a lot of things, I think it's the NFL," said Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. "The Denver Broncos are really well coached and they've got some really good guys on that side of the ball. It wasn't good enough by us today and that's what we need to re-address."

Against Denver, Herbert went 28-for-44 and 303 yards and two touchdown passes but also two interceptions, including a fourth-quarter pick-six by Broncos cornerback Pat Surtain II that put the game out of reach. It didn't help that he was without a running game (Ekeler had 12 carries for 31 yards while Joshua Kelley had only one carry for 5 yards) and that the banged-up offensive line gave up 19 pressures, something Chargers coach Brandon Staley said took the offense out of rhythm.

The Chargers are in need of a second running back to step up behind Ekeler and a third wide receiver to emerges besides Mike Williams and Keenan Allen. And a defense that needs to get healthy and step up. Those things would help the Chargers put together a finishing run that could get them a playoff berth, even a division title.

"We're in a fight," Staley said. "It's been that type of season for us. It didn't matter if we started out 4-1 or not, we had to fight to be 4-1. That was a fight. You've heard me talk about illusions and stuff like that, it was a fight when we were 4-1, it's been a fight when we lost a couple -- three out of four, or whatever it was. It's been a fight and it's still a fight.

"What we have to do, as a team, is we have to keep figuring it out together. If your head is not on straight, you won't figure it out. We're going to try and stay connected and move on to Cincinnati the best that we can."