The Chargers walked off the field Sunday evening a 30-10 winner over Oakland, but the mind of the team’s star quarterback, Philip Rivers, was elsewhere.
He was back in the thin Denver air, where cornerback Casey Hayward dropped a sure-fire interception that would’ve been the first score of the season; where a timeout cost the Chargers a game-tying kick and a mistake on the field-goal protection team cost them the game.
He returned to Carson, where the Chargers began their re-introduction to Los Angeles against the Dolphins with Younghoe Koo — the Chargers’ back-flipping internet sensation — missing two kicks wide right, including a potential game-winner.
He thought about the three interceptions against the Kansas City Chiefs the following week and the overwhelming Philadelphia crowd the one after that. Those were losses too.
He remembered Travis Benjamin backtracking a punt return into the Chargers’ end zone for a safety in New England. He saw Austin Ekeler fumble and Tre Boston showboat in Jacksonville when his team somehow managed to lose a game that seemed impossible to lose.
There was the AFC West showdown in Week 15, with all the injuries and all the turnovers that turned a second-half Charger lead into a Kansas City blowout.
With the season now over, with another year ending without a trip to the playoffs, a normally positive Rivers couldn’t escape the pain.
“It hurts,” Rivers said. “You win one of those and you need no help today.”
The Chargers, though, won none of those games. They began the season 0-4. They began their “Fight for L.A.” in a hole so deep that only one other team in league history managed to crawl out.
They missed kicks (they really never stopped missing kicks), they turned it over against the best team in the division, they couldn’t close out potential wins over the Miami Dolphins and the Jacksonville Jaguars. This was the Chargers’ doing.
And, Sunday, the league reminded them those mistakes aren’t so easily erased.
The Chargers needed the Titans to lose and it didn’t happen. Even if it had, they would’ve needed either a Baltimore win or a Buffalo loss. And those things didn’t happen, pro football’s karmic powers making sure the Chargers would pay for their early-season sins.
Sunday, the Chargers divorced themselves from those scenarios. The in-stadium scoreboard never flashed the out-of-town scores. Players kept off their phones. Only after the game was in hand did word begin to trickle down that playoff dreams were not looking good.
“I don’t know why I’m standing up here like we lost a game,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said as he walked to the podium postgame. “…The last 12 weeks, they won nine out of 12. And, I think they showed what type of team they are.”
Clearly, the Chargers were a dangerous one.
“I didn’t see a team beating us at this point, as of right now,” tight end Antonio Gates said.
Had they made the playoffs, the Chargers would’ve gone back to Jacksonville for the wild-card round.
“You put your fate in other teams’ hands — and in other teams’ hands that, quite frankly, didn’t want us coming to see them,” Rivers said. “It’s my opinion. It doesn’t do us any good. They beat us. But, I’m not sure how bad they really wanted us to come back down there.
“…But it doesn’t matter because we didn’t take care of it when we had the chance to.”
Instead of facing the Chargers, Jacksonville will play host to the Buffalo Bills next Sunday.
The Chargers will face no one — nine months of work culminating in a win and a whiplash-inducing stop.
“I’m not going to lie to you; I just stopped crying five minutes ago,” Chargers offensive tackle Joe Barksdale said. “This [expletive] hurts.”
Pain is better than indifference; it’s better than a December schedule defined by draft positioning. It’s relative. It could’ve been that season. Losing four straight to open the year almost guaranteed it.
But the Chargers closed strongly enough to go into the off-season with some optimism about their future.
This is a change.
After solemnly talking about the season, the ups and the downs, Rivers’ words began to quicken. His enthusiasm flickered and his words started to sprint past his gums
“I’m not big on momentum, but you see a team now … the previous two years it was ‘They can’t win close games, blah blah.’ It was all of that still hanging over you,” he said. “This coming off-season it’ll be ‘Gosh, they finished nine of 12, they got these guys who can rush the passer, they got a guy who caught 100 passes. They got guys with speed on the outside, a young, and hopefully healthy, Mike Williams. Gosh, the offensive line played unbelievable, the fewest sacks in I don’t know how many years.’ …There are a lot of things they’re going to say that are going to be positive.”
But then it all crashed. The reality is too hard to ignore. The Chargers’ season is over. And the future for this team is still so far away.
“These are all what ifs,” Rivers said, his voice slowing back down. “And that’s all you have at this point.”
Follow Dan Woike on Twitter @DanWoikeSports