“Where are you going?”
It didn’t take a professional lip reader to see that’s what Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers yelled in exasperation near the end of the third quarter Saturday night.
Rivers could have been berating himself. The Kansas City Chiefs had just intercepted his pass into double coverage. He could have been upbraiding receiver Tyrell Williams, too, whose wandering route made him look like a tourist without a map.
Where are the Chargers going after their 30-13 defeat? Nowhere.
The franchise that started 2017 by moving two hours up the 5 freeway is ending the year stuck in neutral.
“Bad games can crop up at any time, but I would like to think we were beyond some of these and that we had taken the next step as a program,” Coach Anthony Lynn said. “We took a step back today.”
While technically, this game wasn’t for the AFC West title, it was awfully close to that. If the Chiefs win either of their two final games — at home against Miami, or at Denver — the Chargers are toast, no matter what happens next week at the New York Jets or in their finale at home against Oakland.
As for the Chargers getting a wild-card ticket to the playoffs? You’d need an electron microscope to see odds that small.
“The hardest part of it is, while it’s not necessarily over yet, you’re not in control,” Rivers said. “You’ve got to make sure you take care of the next couple, but then you need all kind of things to happen. So that’s the toughest part. To claw our way back up and actually taste it again, and then not play very well.”
The Chiefs have beaten the Chargers eight times in a row — including in the 2014 finale to deny them a playoff spot — so it’s not as if Saturday night’s outcome had people rubbing their eyes. But the season shouldn’t have come down to this for the Chargers.
This was a missed opportunity, sure, but no more than that blocked field goal in Denver, or the two misses against Miami, or taking a punt return back into their own end zone for a safety at New England, or — and mathematicians are still scratching their heads over this — intercepting Jacksonville twice in the final two minutes with a lead and still losing.
All of the Chargers’ past sins weighed them down like ballast bags coming into this game, yet they still had an opportunity to cut them loose and keep rising, perhaps to their first AFC West title since 2009.
But that dream eluded them with the speed of Tyreek Hill on a go-route.
In fairness, it was pretty amazing the Chargers got to this point after starting the season with four consecutive losses. Few would have imagined the rest of the division would tank the way it did.
Rivers was especially hot during his team’s four-game winning streak leading up to Saturday night. He had thrown for 1,348 yards during that span, with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. He was picked off three times by the Chiefs, just as he was in the Chargers’ Week 3 loss to Kansas City at home.
“Shoot, I probably shouldn’t have thrown the long one to Tyrell,” Rivers said. “And the last one, shoot, we were in desperation mode, 30-13. I can check it down, or throw it away and punt, but I’m over the stats.”
The Chiefs understand uneven performances. They won their first five games, looked unbeatable, then lost six of seven. They pulled out of their nosedive last week by beating Oakland, then maintained that momentum at home Saturday.
Somehow, this year felt different for the Chargers. So often, they have been a M*A*S*H unit at this point of the season, with Rivers taking snaps from his fourth different center, protected by an offensive line that’s been reshuffled every week, and throwing to receivers who spent most of the year on the practice squad. All the speculation surrounding the team would be about who the next wrong coach would be, and how the franchise would use its first-round draft pick.
But not this year. Coming into this game, everything was falling into place for the Chargers. They were that bowling pin left standing when all the others around them had been knocked down.
They didn’t have to stop Ezekiel Elliott on Thanksgiving in Dallas; he was suspended. Washington was long since bandaged and broken down when it got to StubHub Center. They’re getting quarterback Bryce Petty with the Jets next week instead of the more formidable Josh McCown, and then the finale against the rudderless Raiders. Even the weather was cooperative Saturday night, a downright balmy 53 degrees at kickoff, with thousands of Chiefs fans stripped down to sweatshirts under jerseys.
Are the Chargers going to the playoffs? Cold day in hell.
Their undoing? Warm night in Kansas City.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer