For some strange reason, it took 15 weeks to officially eliminate the San Diego Chargers from playoff contention. A 5-8 record and wins against only the Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers wouldn’t do it, but 5-9 finally put the final nail in the coffin. The final nail was a painful 31-7 loss at home to the Carolina Panthers.
Sunday’s loss was reminiscent of the Chargers’ Week 8 loss to the Cleveland Browns coming off the bye week—only worse. The Chargers have had a lot of exiguous performances this season, but none like Sunday’s whipping.
The Chargers have now embarrassed themselves with second-half meltdowns against the New Orleans Saints, Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cincinnati Bengals this season. The loss to the Panthers expanded San Diego’s embarrassment to include blowout losses to below-average opponents.
The Chargers don’t have a quality win on their schedule this season, and the teams they have defeated have a combined record of 17-38. The only game that doesn’t seem to make sense was the win in Pittsburgh last week, but the Steelers are now just a .500 team. The Steelers have also lost to the Raiders and Browns on the road, and they barely escaped with wins over the Philadelphia Eagles and Chiefs at home.
Norv Turner has gotten into a habit of putting lipstick on a pig at the end of the season to fool San Diego’s ownership, but all he’s got left in 2012 is a hollow tube. There will be no late-season surge in San Diego, and the Chargers will finish below .500 for the first time since 2003. The last time the Chargers were this bad Antonio Gates was a rookie, LaDainian Tomlinson was 24 and Philip Rivers was a senior at North Carolina State.
The one common denominator in every season since 2003 was a top-five offense in points scored. The Chargers will almost assuredly fall short of 400 points scored for the first time since 2003. Prior to 2004, you have to go back to 1985 to find a San Diego offense that scored over 400 points in a season—the tail end of the Don Coryell and Dan Fouts era.
The Chargers have been able to win over the past decade with elite offenses, but that era now appears to have ended about as abruptly as it did for Coryell in 1986. You have to go back to defenses led by Junior Seau in the early 1990s or to Sid Gillman to find a Chargers team that made the playoffs without scoring 400 points.
On Sunday, the defense was also responsible for letting the game get away. The Panthers ran over the Chargers quite literally on the first drive with 32 yards rushing, including a one-yard touchdown run by former Chargers running back Mike Tolbert. The Panthers were also gifted with a personal foul penalty on Antoine Cason.
After Rivers fumbled, the Panthers picked up eight more yards on the ground with Tolbert getting another one-yard touchdown. The offense almost predictably went three-and-out, and then the Panthers drove the ball 72 yards in six plays. The drive was capped by a 45-yard catch-and-run by DeAngelo Williams for Cam Newton. It was 21-0 before the start of the second quarter.
From there, the Panthers just went after San Diego’s patchwork offensive line and sacked Rivers a total of five times. Rivers would fumble four times in total, losing two of them. By halftime it was 24-0, and there were no halftime adjustments that could save the Chargers from a complete embarrassment.
Forget about running the ball down by four scores, but it's not like the Chargers could run the ball if they wanted to run the ball. Ryan Mathews carried the ball four times for 22 yards before leaving the game with another broken clavicle in the second quarter.
The Chargers went three-and-out to start the second half, and the Panthers scored again to make it 31-0. The Panthers whipped the Chargers, and it wasn’t until a Williams’ fumble gave the Chargers great field position in the fourth quarter that the Chargers mustered enough offense to put points on the board.
Even then, the drive was extended thanks to a defensive pass interference call on 3rd-and-8 before Gates grabbed his record-tying 81st touchdown in a Chargers uniform. Gates is now tied with Lance Alworth for the franchise lead.
The writing has been on the wall since Week 6 in San Diego, even if the Chargers weren't officially eliminated until Week 15. Unlike previous seasons when Turner's team fought to the very end, this team appears as though they will go out without much of a fight.