The Chargers came out Sunday playing their second consecutive opponent that lacked a victory, allowed Denver to score two touchdowns in barely 10 minutes and never crossed the goal line on offense.
They turned the ball over inside the one-yard line and again in the end zone and generated zero points off two takeaways, one of which came so deep in the Broncos’ end that they started with a goal-to-go situation.
Having already lost twice to underdogs this season, the Chargers suffered their most indicting defeat yet, falling 20-13 at Dignity Health Sports Park on a day when they failed to equal the will of a winless team.
“I hope this isn’t the case, but maybe it was because they were 0-4,” safety Rayshawn Jenkins said, searching for an explanation. “It just felt that way. I’m trying to pinpoint the same thing. I don’t know. I honestly can’t call it.”
The Chargers’ defense was bulldozed early and the offense looked listless and out of sync, failing to score a touchdown for the first time in 55 games.
Quarterback Philip Rivers was intercepted twice, the running game produced only 35 yards on 16 carries and the offense couldn’t capitalize fully on four trips inside the red zone. This was just the ninth time in 224 career starts — including the playoffs — that Rivers didn’t lead his team to at least one touchdown.
“Sorry for keeping you good people waiting,” coach Anthony Lynn told reporters. “Sorry for watching that damn game. We play like that we won’t beat anybody. That team came here more desperate for a win … It was disappointing.”
For the Chargers, the afternoon marked the celebrated return of running back Melvin Gordon, who missed all of training camp and the preseason, nine weeks total, because of a contract dispute. A two-time Pro Bowler, he was expected to give the offense a boost, especially against a defense missing one of its stars, injured outside linebacker Bradley Chubb.
Instead, the Chargers ended up punting five times and never succeeded in their day-long search for an explosive play.
They had only one offensive snap that resulted in a gain of as many as 20 yards, a Rivers pass to Mike Williams. Denver had four such plays.
“We just never got in a groove, running the ball or passing it,” Gordon said. “We were just looking for somebody to make a play. None of us really could. We were dying to make one. It just didn’t happen. It was weird.”
Gordon, who has had only one practice in full pads since rejoining the team, finished with 12 carries for 31 yards and four receptions for seven yards. His longest play was a seven-yard rush.
While Gordon was out, Austin Ekeler was as the team’s top running back. On Sunday, he was employed much more as a receiver, catching 15 passes while carrying only three times.
But to illustrate how much the Chargers struggled for production, those Ekeler receptions gained only 86 yards, the fewest for a player with at least 15 catches in a game since 1950, according to NFL.com.
“We were switching up the plays,” Ekeler said. “We were trying to figure out what the heck was going on. We were switching our personnel. We just didn’t get it done.”
The Chargers were so discombobulated on offense that Keenan Allen, one of the NFL’s most productive receivers the first month of the season, had only four catches for 18 yards.
At one point, following another failed third-down conversion in the second half — as the crowd began another round of booing — Allen pulled off his helmet and looked skyward as he slowly trudged to the bench.
“We got guys, you know, alpha males that want to make the play, that want to get it done,” Gordon said. “No one on the offensive side of the ball could make that play to get us going. For us to not score [a touchdown] on offense is crazy with all the talent we have.”
Perhaps the most telling offensive failure came late in the third quarter after the defense provided a glowing opportunity. Defensive lineman Justin Jones tipped a Joe Flacco pass that linebacker Kyzir White intercepted, giving the Chargers the ball at the Denver seven-yard line.
Gordon gained five yards to put the ball at the two. Backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor entered the game, with Rivers lining up as a wide receiver on the right side. Taylor took the snap and handed off to Gordon, the trickery not fooling the Broncos, who dropped Gordon for no gain.
On third and goal, Rivers tried to hit Williams over the middle, but Denver linebacker Alexander Johnson intercepted the pass, a potential touchdown becoming a touchback.
Afterward, Rivers called the play “just a bad throw” and acknowledged he should have been content with an incompletion and field-goal attempt.
But with the Chargers failing so often Sunday, the turnover was just another reason for frustration.
“We knew they were going to come out desperate,” Jenkins said. “That’s what we were saying the whole time. ‘Just don’t get caught in this trap. Just play our ball.’ And then we didn’t do that.”