Column: Chargers revert to old ways and find a way to lose to the Broncos 23-22

Chargers safeties Adrian Phillips, left, and Derwin James walk away in defeat after Denver Broncos kicker Brandon McManus kicked a 34-yard field goal for a 23-22 win at Stubhub Center.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

How embarrassing. How buffoonish. How San Diego of the Chargers.

Bad enough the Chargers were protecting a two-point advantage late in the fourth quarter against the powerless Denver Broncos.

Here they were on second-and-three, Philip Rivers turning clockwise to hand the football to the Melvin Gordon, only for the running back to have scampered off in another direction. And here they were on third-and-seven, Rivers stopping the clock with a purposely errant throw when he could have erased 40 precious seconds by taking a knee on the turf.


The ending was entirely deserved, the Broncos covering 76 yards on their final drive to set up a last-second field goal by Brandon McManus and send the Chargers crashing to a 23-22 defeat.

“We say it every week, more games in this league lost than won,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said, “and we lost that one.”

This was a classic Qualcomm Stadium meltdown in the new-age StubHub Center, and if the Chargers find themselves in an undesirable predicament when the postseason starts, they will be able to point to this game as a reason why.

These Chargers were supposed to be immune to this sort of collapse this season, their six-game winning streak entering Sunday evidence of the franchise’s evolution from perennial punchline to legitimate contender.

Of course, anyone familiar with the franchise’s tortured history knew better. Whenever the Chargers raise expectations, they are bound to betray them.

Opportunities were blown on multiple fronts.

A win over the Broncos, coupled by a Rams’ victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, would have earned the Chargers a share of first place in the AFC West.

And as well as the Chargers have played, the overwhelming number of Broncos-orange shirts in the stands confirmed they still have to convince the Los Angeles market they should be taken seriously. Defeats like this won’t help.

They are 7-3, but they don’t have the luxury of dropping games like this.

Pro Bowl end Joey Bosa returned in a limited capacity, but the defense remains a question mark. Linebacker Denzel Perryman went down last week with a season-ending knee injury. Tackle Corey Liuget received a similar diagnosis Sunday.

And the only soft touch that remains on the Chargers’ schedule is a home date against the two-win Arizona Cardinals next week.

The self-sabotage started early Sunday, as penalties forced the Chargers to settle for field goals on their two first-quarter scoring drives. They finished the game with 14 penalties that cost them 120 yards.

“You have to be kidding me,” Lynn said.

Turnovers compounded the problem.

Rivers threw only four interceptions in the previous nine games, but threw two in the second quarter. The second was on a screen pass intended for Travis Benjamin that was swiped by All-Pro linebacker Von Miller, which led to a touchdown run by Royce Freeman to reduce the Chargers’ advantage to 19-14.

“The interception turned the game around,” Rivers said. “That spun the whole game. It was about to be a blowout and he made that play. Then, the touchdown. Then, all of a sudden, they made it a game.”

But the Broncos won only three of their first nine games for a reason. So the Chargers remained in position to win the game, reclaiming the edge at 22-20 when kicker Michael Badgely made a 30-yard field goal with 6 minutes 47 seconds remaining.

“We shouldn’t have been in that situation,” Rivers said. “It should’ve been about 33-7 at that point.”

The Chargers forced the Broncos to punt and regained possession with 3:45 left.

Rivers completed a 25-yard pass to Antonio Gates that advanced the ball to the Chargers’ 49-yard line.

Gordon ran for seven yards on the next play, forcing the Broncos to exhaust their final timeout with 2:39 to play. Another first down would have ended the game.

That’s when Gordon forgot where he had to be to receive a handoff. Rivers was taken down for a four-yard loss.

“I went the wrong way,” Gordon said. “No excuses for it. That’s the down to go get it, to win the game. You just can’t make that mistake.”

And Rivers couldn’t make the mistake he did on the next play.

Rivers called an audible at the line of the scrimmage for a screen pass. That part was OK.

Rivers sensed Miller knew what was coming. That part was also OK.

Mindful that Miller had intercepted a similar pass earlier in the game, Rivers threw the football into the ground for an incompletion.

Not OK.

“I need to pull the ball back and take the sack or find a way to complete [the pass],” Rivers said.

Because he didn’t do either, the clock stopped with 1:58 remaining. The Chargers punted and the Broncos regained the football at their eight-yard line with 1:51 left.

“We just did some things that were uncharacteristic of the seven wins we’ve had,” Rivers said.

Only the history of the Chargers extends beyond the seven games they have won this season.

Take a step back, examine the loss in the broader context and what happened Sunday will look like something else: the norm.

Hear from Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn and quarterback Philip Rivers after the Chargers lost to the Broncos on Sunday at the Stubhub Center, 23-22, in a game ripe with Los Angeles penalties, interceptions, fake punts and more.