Josh Lambo stood motionless on the FirstEnergy Stadium field last December, staring toward the ground for nearly 10 seconds ... the look on the former Chargers kicker’s face capturing the shock, pain and indignity of the moment.
Lambo had pushed a potential game-tying 45-yard field goal wide right as time expired, allowing the winless Cleveland Browns to hold on for a 20-17 Christmas Eve victory and avoid joining the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams in NFL history to go 0-16.
“I wasn’t here last year,” coach Anthony Lynn said Monday as the Chargers began preparations for Sunday’s game against another winless Browns team in StubHub Center, “but I’m pretty sure they remember losing to this team last year.”
Lynn hopes the sting of that loss, part of a season-ending five-game skid that led to the firing of coach Mike McCoy, combined with his team’s recent surge into playoff contention will provide enough incentive for the Chargers to avoid the kind of complacency that can lead to a similar upset.
The Chargers (5-6) have rebounded from an 0-4 start to win five of seven games, outscoring Buffalo and Dallas 82-30 in their last two games to move to within one game of Kansas City (6-5) in the suddenly not-so-formidable AFC West.
Quarterback Philip Rivers is coming off perhaps the best game of his 14-year career, completing 27 of 33 passes for 434 yards and three touchdowns in a Thanksgiving Day rout of the Cowboys, and a stingy defense has forced 17 turnovers in the last seven games.
The Browns (0-11) rank last in the NFL in scoring (15.1 points per game), second-to-last in points allowed (26.3 per game) and are led by a quarterback, DeShone Kizer, with the worst passer rating (57.2) in the league.
The Chargers are 13-point favorites. The Browns are favored … to pick first in the 2018 NFL draft.
“I would hate to say this is a ‘trap’ game for us, because it really shouldn’t be,” Lynn said. “We’ve got all of the motivation in the world to go out and play, mainly because it’s the next one on the schedule, but also because this team is young and talented, and if they put it all together, they can beat anybody.”
The circumstances were different for the Chargers when the teams met in the second-to-last week of last season on a breezy, 38-degree day in Cleveland. The Browns were 0-14 and the Chargers were eliminated from playoff contention en route to a 5-11 season.
Asked if there was a feeling the Chargers were playing out the string, linebacker Kyle Emanuel said, “I mean, maybe a little bit. Guys understand this is your job, and you’re expected to perform whether you’re in a playoff hunt or not, but it was Christmas Eve, it was Cleveland, it was cold … it was a different atmosphere, for sure.”
The game started well for the Chargers, as speedy receiver Travis Benjamin burned cornerback Joe Haden for a 50-yard catch on the first play to set up Rivers’ one-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Gates.
It did not end well. The Chargers were penalized nine times for 92 yards, they converted only five of 15 third-down plays and mustered 34 yards rushing.
They pulled within 20-17 on Tyrell Williams’ one-yard scoring catch in the third quarter, but Lambo’s 32-yard field-goal attempt was blocked with 3 minutes 49 seconds left. Lambo missed at the final gun after Rivers had effectively maneuvered the Chargers down field in a desperation two-minute drill.
“It was a weird game,” Williams said. “It felt like we were right there waiting for that big play to happen, and it never did.”
“You don’t want to say it was like our Super Bowl,” Thomas told reporters, “but it really was.”
It made for a peculiar post-game scene, with the worst team in football reacting as if it had won a playoff game.
“Yeah, I do remember their celebration,” Emanuel said. “It’s a little odd when you have two teams that are basically playing for nothing, and you see one of them celebrating like they did, but rightfully so. It was a big win for them.”
Those who don’t learn from history, as the saying goes, are destined to repeat it. The Chargers learned they can’t underestimate anyone.
“Every NFL team, regardless of record, can come out and win at any point, so we can’t let their record impact how we play,” Williams said. “I feel like we’re on a roll right now, we have a bigger picture in our minds, so we’re coming out for every game with the same approach and going for the lead in that division. For us, that’s the only thing that matters.”
If the focus and attention to detail slip during the week, the first-year coach will not hesitate to remind the Chargers that, despite their recent success, they really haven’t done anything to warrant taking an opponent lightly.
“We’re still fighting,” Lynn said. “I mean, right now, we’re not even bowl eligible, so we’re trying to get to that next win, and that’s the way we have to look at it. We’re still the hunters. We’re not the hunted. We’re a game out in our division, but we have some catching up to do.”
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna