“What?” Casey Hayward thought.
And he thought to himself, “This week? Really? Changing to a rookie quarterback for his first start? Against us?”
“I’m pretty sure we might’ve felt a little disrespected,” Hayward said. “…We’ve got two really good pass rushers, probably the top tandem in the NFL. We’ve got really good corners. … We’ve got really good safeties. They do it against us?
The Chargers certainly made the Buffalo Bills pay for deciding Sunday was the right day to give rookie Nathan Peterman his first NFL start. The Chargers intercepted him five times in the first half, returned one for a touchdown, and forced him to the sideline in a 54-24 walloping at StubHub Center. The Chargers are the first team to have five interceptions in the first half since Miami did in 1973.
The Chargers forced a sixth turnover in the second half, stripping Peterman’s replacement, quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and returning the fumble for another defensive touchdown. The six takeaways were the most by the team since a win over Tampa Bay in 1990.
Korey Toomer’s first-quarter, 59-yard interception return on the game’s opening drive and Ingram’s 39-yard fumble return late in the third quarter were the team’s first two defensive touchdowns of the season.
“We just took advantage of the disrespect,” Hayward said.
The big plays came a week after safety Tre Boston said it was on the Chargers’ defense to take matters into their own hands, to not wait for the team’s offense to get into rhythm. The defense, Boston said, was good enough to score.
“We have to find ways to put points on the board,” he said after the team’s collapse in Jacksonville a week ago. “Once we start finding a way to score on defense …”
The Bills helped the Chargers find their way.
Hayward said the defense was licking its chops at the chance to get after Peterman, who was named the starter Wednesday.
“Either he’s going to do really good or really bad,” Hayward said, stopping to chuckle.
The Bills turned the ball over on their first two drives, with Toomer and Hayward getting interceptions. Buffalo scored on its third drive — two running plays for 64 yards — before Peterman threw two more interceptions, one to Boston and another to Hayward.
The Chargers forced two punts and then picked off Peterman again — all by halftime.
“Our defense, they started getting those turnovers last week,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “Sometimes, they come in bunches. They came today. Our offense took advantage of it most of the time. We got points on defense. That’s great. …Those guys are playing at a high level right now — very confident.”
Fifteen of the Chargers’ 17 defensive turnovers have come in the last six games. But until Sunday, none of those takeaways were turned into points by the defense — something the sub-.500 Chargers unfortunately have needed.
The offense has been underperforming all season. Boston’s plea for the defense to start scoring was an indictment of the team’s offense — a group that failed to score more than 21 points seven times in nine games before Sunday.
MaybeToomer’s first-quarter touchdown helped that group relax. Maybe the Chargers were simply due for a big performance. Or, maybe the Bills’ defense was still reeling from allowing 47 points to New Orleans last week.
However it happened, the Chargers offense needed Sunday.
“Relief,” offensive guard Kenny Wiggins said. “We just played.”
The Chargers benefited from short fields and hit the Bills with a balanced attack, scoring on seven straight drives after missing a field goal on their first possession.
Before Sunday, the Chargers had scored on consecutive possessions just five times all season and only once since Week 5.
“That’s the part offensively where I felt a little bit like we’re letting our defense down,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “Here they are holding [teams] to under 24 almost every week and we’re winning three games.
“I think from that standpoint, it’s nice to see 54 up there.”
Rivers, coming off a concussion last Sunday, completed 20 of 32 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns before giving way to Kellen Clemens in the fourth quarter.
Rivers found his best target, Keenan Allen, 12 times for 159 yards and both of his touchdown passes. The Chargers also rushed for 146 yards, with Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler both finding the end zone.
“We executed at a much better level offensively — a much better rhythm and flow,” Rivers said.
If the defense or offense had shown up sooner, maybe the Chargers wouldn’t be clinging to playoff hopes. Maybe they’d have grabbed on to a division lead by now, a frustrating realization.
“It can be if I look back,” Lynn said, “but I can’t afford to look back. I have to look forward and we have the rest of the season in front of us.”
Follow Dan Woike on Twitter @DanWoikeSports