When the San Diego Chargers went to face the New York Jets, they were a hot team looking to advance to face an opponent they had historically fared quite well against. Something happened in between the start of the playoffs and that date with the Indianapolis Colts, however: the Jets.
Vincent Jackson, expected to be shut down by Darrell Revis, had seven catches for 111 yards. Phillip Rivers put up nearly 300 yards. Mark Sanchez was held to being perfectly average, with just 100 yards on 12-23 passing with a TD and a pick. Thomas Jones was even stuffed for less than three yards a carry, and the attacking Jets defense only managed two sacks.
On paper, most of what the Chargers wanted to happen seemed to. But in a game of inches, the team was buried on three plays.
The first goes to Nate Kaeding. When a kicker goes 0-3 on the day, then a team losing by a field goal can easily look there. The late game 57-yard boot was irrelevant. It was a last second try that outreached most kickers' legs. What did matter was a much earlier attempt.
Nate Kaeding, automatic from under 40 yards in the regular season, badly shanked a 36-yard attempt in the first quarter when both teams were trying to establish momentum. The kick would have equated to a 10-3 lead late into the game, that lone score possibly enough to modify strategies on either end.
Second was the second interception by Phillip Rivers. The first has to be chalked up as "one of those plays." He tossed the ball where he should, Jackson had a hand on it, but a series of unlikely bounces put it in the clutches of Revis.
Badly missing on a forced throw from one's end zone while protecting a slim lead in a defensive battle, however, is inexcusable. With Antonio Gates never turning around from his seam route, the ball dropped well short of the big tight end and directly into the hands of Jim Leonhard.
As a fan, I'd be the first to normally lambast a team for running three straight backed up with a stalled rushing attack. The play dialed up, in addition to Rivers' miscue, was a faulty idea overall. The play required solid protection against an aggressive, hard blitzing team. Rivers could have just as easily been fighting to avoid a safety in the call went amuck.
A four to five yard timing pass would have given wiggle room. The bullet notion makes it much more interception-proof, and if it falls incomplete, it isn't that different from another Tomlinson run straight up the middle. The decision by Rivers was obviously poor, but the play called did nothing to protect him.
The final mistake was the fatal blow. The Chargers had not exactly stalled the running attack entirely, but had minimized its damage. Thomas Jones had been stopped, and Shonn Greene was running well, but not dominating the team.
Greene then broke free for a 53-yard charge to the end zone that coughed up San Diego's game-long lead and put the team on its heels. San Diego was forced into "comeback" mode for the rest of the game. The team put one more touchdown on the board, but also witnessing another miss from Kaeding, this one from 40 yards.
The reality is San Diego deserved to lose. They were outfoxed and outmuscled across the entire game. They moved the ball reasonably well at times but could never capitalize. They hurt themselves with foolish penalties, and the defense ran out of steam.
You could break down any number of ways and places the team failed to execute. Across an entire game, it is more complicated than what is listed, and certain turns of events magnify specific moments.
The simplest answer for now lies in those three points, though. If one of those plays turned differently, the game's outlook would've changed drastically. Each was also the result of something ultimately avoidable: a failure to execute on San Diego’s part rather than a pure great play by New York.
San Diego had swagger. They had talent. They had determination. What they lacked was heart and guts. The thing this team will need to look at heavily in the offseason when addressing its needs is toughness. How do they add that degree of toughness to make them stand up when punched in the teeth? It has been their undoing for years, and it is why they can embarrass a team like Indianapolis but fall to lesser competition.
Until they can find the answer, they will continue to be elite outsiders; a great team that cannot penetrate to the deeper reaches of the playoffs.