San Diego Chargers' Week 5: So Close and Yet so Far Away
It's not time to jump off the bandwagon yet.
Chargers fans react to a loss as if they had lost by 40, the team bus had burst into flames upon leaving the stadium, and then the sky had fallen on it.
Any NFL fan will tell you "a play here, a play there and we could be undefeated!" But most teams aren't undefeated. 3-2 is not the end of the world. First place in the AFC West is not the end of the world.
And if you are going to lose to anyone, you want it to be teams from the NFC. Not only do you not lose ground to the teams competing for the same playoff spots as you, but if you find yourself in a tie at the end of the season, inter-conference games play no factor in important tiebreakers. Losing to the Saints and Falcons is not nearly as harmful as losing to Oakland or Kansas City.
With that being said, the Chargers let this game get away. I said Saturday that the Chargers needed to do three things to attain victory: Get Philip Rivers back on track, get the ball to Ryan Mathews and get pressure on Drew Brees.
Certainly sounds like the first half to me.
Philip Rivers came out hot, finally incorporating free-agent pickup Robert Meachem into the pass offense with two first-half touchdown passes. He had little trouble dealing with the Saints pass rush, and found huge success with a variety of screen passes.
"Starting" running back Jackie Battle was spelled by Ryan Mathews after just four carries. Mathews started to quickly pick up yardage, gaining 80 yards on just 12 carries. He was able to move the ball on early downs and set up San Diego with easier third-down conversions.
The defense, despite allowing Drew Brees to break Unitas' consecutive games with a touchdown record with a wide-open touchdown pass to Devery Henderson, played relatively well through 30 minutes. It allowed only 14 points to a high-powered Saints offense and was getting heavy, consistent pressure on Brees.
As the third quarter opened, with San Diego leading 17-14, Brees was picked off by Quentin Jammer. The turnover was quickly converted to points as Mathews broke a run around the left end and dove into the end zone for a 13-yard score. The Chargers roared ahead to a 24-14 lead. It looked very promising.
The turning point of the game came with about four minutes left in the third quarter. The Saints found themselves down 10, with a first down on their own 23-yard line. Following a Shaun Phillips sack, Brees faced heavy pressure on 2nd-and-16, and threw his second interception of the quarter. Linebacker Demorrio Williams had the ball hit him right in the stomach, and he turned upfield and took it all the way back for a Chargers touchdown.
But a speck of yellow fell to the ground next to Brees' grounded body. A defensive play that would have given the Chargers a commanding 31-14 lead was called back for a "roughing the passer" call on Melvin Ingram, San Diego's rookie linebacker.
Was the hit Ingram laid on Brees, his helmet connecting with the bottom of Brees' chin, a correct penalty call? Yes. Was it the reason the Chargers lost the game? Absolutely not.
That didn't stop me from calling it though. At 7:43 p.m., right after the penalty on Ingram, I texted this message to a friend: "That's the game changer right there."
Three minutes later, after the Saints drove down the field with ease, Brees found Marques Colston to cut the lead to 24-21. At 7:46 p.m.: "We're toast."
And we were.
Everything the Chargers were doing well just...stopped. Philip Rivers stopped getting protection and started taking huge sacks. Ryan Mathews stopped picking up yardage. The defense stopped getting any discernible pressure on Drew Brees whatsoever.
The Saints scored again. We were losing now. Philip Rivers threw an interception. The Saints added a field goal.
Just like that, halfway through the fourth quarter, the Chargers were down 31-24 and scrambling big time. Nothing seemed to be working. No one was open. No one was blocking anyone. It was a whole different team out there, a team that couldn't respond to adversity. A team that has never been able to.
I knew we wouldn't come back. We never do. You can blame the officials for questionable calls during that last drive, but the game had been decided long before Antonio Gates "pushed off" his defender.
Let me give you some perspective. I watched the Houston Texans play a very similar game last night against the Jets. Houston was up 17-7 at halftime, and extended the lead to 20-7 as the third quarter waned. The Jets responded with a kickoff return for a touchdown and cut the lead to one score.
The crowd was going nuts. Mark Sanchez was playing better than expected. Tim Tebow was making plays on 4th down. I was sure the Texans were going to collapse. Their offense couldn't get going and the Jets had several possessions down by one score, with a chance to win the game.
You know what happened? The Texans won 23-17, because the Texans just win games.
The defense stepped up. J.J. Watt, my 2012 defensive player of the year, stepped up. They made the plays they needed to. It wasn't pretty. It wasn't the 2007 Patriots. But 5-0 is 5-0.
The Chargers didn't win because they didn't make those plays. When things started to go sour, they didn't adapt. They all just carried on like nothing was wrong, as the ship sank around them.
As I said, losing to the Saints does not break their season. But losing to the Broncos next Monday at home might do the trick.
There will come a point in that game when something doesn't go according to plan. It might be a Philip Rivers pick, it might be a Ryan Mathews fumble, it might be Peyton Manning fitting a perfect throw into double coverage. And when this point comes, the Chargers can't just let it go like they did in New Orleans.
If they let that game get away from them too, then we have issues. Then it might be time to call attention to the bus catching fire.
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