It wasn’t a case of unnecessary bluntness, but a forehead-slapping fumble of the frontal lobe.
Nine weeks ago, in the intoxicating aftermath of a home victory over San Diego, Kansas City rookie Tamba Hali referred to the Chargers as a “finesse” team, the harshest of condemnations in a league where the world’s worst four-letter word is spelled s-o-f-t.
“When a team calls you out ... that’s something that sticks with you,” Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. “Especially when you get to play them again.”
How much Hali’s put-down inspired the Chargers is unclear, but this much is fact: They haven’t lost since.
On Sunday, before a packed house at Qualcomm Stadium and a national TV audience, the Chargers delivered a convincing rebuttal, roughing up Kansas City in a 20-9 victory despite a shaky performance by their normally reliable offense.
It was the eighth consecutive victory for San Diego (12-2), which won the AFC West a week earlier and is inching ever closer to home-field advantage in the playoffs. It was also a reminder that the Chargers can win even when their quarterback completes only 10 passes -- two of them to the other team.
Of course, the Chargers have Tomlinson, who doesn’t just collect touchdowns these days but NFL records. With his two trips to the end zone Sunday -- including a career-long 85-yard touchdown run -- he set single-season records with 186 points, 28 rushing touchdowns and eight consecutive multi-touchdown games.
“As an English major like I am, how many superlatives can you find?” Coach Marty Schottenheimer said of Tomlinson. “The young man is remarkable.”
The game began with a moment of silence for Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, the football visionary who died last week. Kansas City players wore “LH” stickers on their helmets to honor him, and Schottenheimer, a former Chiefs coach, couldn’t keep his chin from trembling when asked about Hunt after the game.
“I loved him,” Schottenheimer said. “I’m not ashamed to say it, I’m proud to say it ... I loved him. We’re going to miss him.”
Sunday’s statistical showdown between LT and LJ was no contest. Kansas City’s Larry Johnson ran for 84 yards in 19 carries, respectable against San Diego’s cinderblock defense. Tomlinson had 199 yards in 25 carries.
Did someone say finesse?
“That’s pretty much a slap in the face when you call any offense a finesse team,” Chargers rookie left tackle Marcus McNeill said. “And then it’s really a double slap to the face of the offensive line. We already don’t get much credit anyway, and to call us a finesse team, you’re asking for a barroom brawl. And that’s kind of what you saw.”
A pivotal point came late in the second quarter with San Diego ahead, 7-3. On fourth down at their 13, the Chargers tried to punt, but Mike Scifres’ attempt was blocked. The ball fluttered past the line of scrimmage, where it was touched but not recovered by Kansas City’s Derrick Ross. A split-second later, San Diego’s David Binn dived in and grabbed it.
Officials ruled Ross muffed the punt, Binn recovered it and the Chargers had a first down at their 15. On the next play, Tomlinson broke around the left side and darted down the visitors’ sideline and into the end zone.
For the Chiefs (7-7), the missed opportunities were crushing.
“It was real frustrating,” Johnson said. “Everybody felt hyped and ready to go. We just couldn’t put it together out there. A lot of things happened that we could have capitalized on, but it was like a wheel spinning in the mud.”
Instead of doing doughnuts in the end zone, the Chiefs put one up in the touchdown column. It was the first time since Week 2 at Denver that they failed to cross the goal line. Quarterback Trent Green was sacked six times and only set foot inside San Diego’s 20 when the Chiefs defense intercepted a pass there. Kansas City’s scoring came on three Lawrence Tynes field goals.
Likewise, it was far from a banner night for Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who completed eight of 23 passes for 97 yards with two interceptions and was sacked twice. Midway through the third quarter, after throwing an incomplete pass on third down, Rivers ran to the sidelines and flung his helmet at the bench in frustration.
Rivers later called the game “one of, if not the poorest, I’ve played. Period. Any sport.”
He followed that with a shrug.
“I guarantee you I’ll learn from it and keep plugging along,” he said. “We beat the Kansas City Chiefs late in the year, when we’re playing for a lot and they’re playing for a playoff spot. You figure you did some good things too.”
Now that’s answering with, well, finesse.