That will leave a mark.
Losing to the 0-4 Denver Broncos, who were 0-8 dating to last season, and failing to score an offensive touchdown can put your confidence in the Cuisinart, so it’s no wonder the Chargers were punching air afterward.
“You never want to look at big picture too much, but you know division games they’re important,” dejected quarterback Philip Rivers said Sunday after the Chargers’ 20-13 home loss. “As the year goes, and with the expectation that we’re going to bounce back and get on a roll at some point, you look back and know that these are the games that can hurt you.”
Just like Miami last week, and Pittsburgh next week, this was a game the Chargers should have won. They’re more talented top to bottom, and they’re playing at home, even though at least half the crowd at Dignity Health Sports Park was wearing orange.
“It’s a different atmosphere,” Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco said of the NFL’s smallest stadium by a factor of two. “You don’t know who’s cheering for who sometimes. It’s kind of a pretty cool place to play, honestly. Not too dissimilar from a really nice double-A [baseball] stadium, and it’s cool to see a lot of orange jerseys out there in the stands.”
Rivers is seeing a familiar shade of red. After 15 years with the Chargers, he could teach a graduate course in digging out of holes. That’s the hallmark of this franchise. Fall behind early in the season, scramble like crazy, then play your way back into the postseason mix in December.
“We’ve been in this boat a lot,” he said. “Obviously, we don’t want to be, but we have been. This group together hasn’t been, so we’ll kind of see how this group responds collectively. Certainly, there’s a handful of us who have been through it together, but not this exact team. This one’s tough.”
These Chargers should be flagged for roughing the fanbase considering the way they have melted in the red zone. Four times this season they have turned over the ball in goal-to-go situations, with that happening twice Sunday:
On the final play of the first half, a fourth and goal from the one, Austin Ekeler tried to beat defenders to the pylon but lost the ball as he was diving for the end zone, resulting in a touchback.
Late in the third quarter, on third and goal from the two, a pass by Rivers was intercepted in the end zone to squelch another scoring threat.
Peak frustration for Rivers came with 3 minutes 35 seconds to play and the Chargers, as poorly as they played, trailing by only a touchdown. It was third down from the Chargers 30 and the Broncos tipped their hand. They were coming with an all-out blitz.
Rivers dialed up the ideal play, a middle screen to running back Melvin Gordon, who will slip past the pass rushers and be ready to make the catch, with miles of open grass in front of him. He might have gone the distance.
But Gordon, playing in his first game back since ending his holdout, was jostled as he split two defenders, knocking his timing off a fraction of a second. The arcing pass from Rivers sailed just out of reach and fell harmlessly to the turf.
“They had brought it in that situation five or six times in [Denver coach Vic] Fangio’s last 14 games,” Rivers said, reaching back to Fangio’s stint as defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears. “That’s what we decided was the best opportunity, because they kind of hold it in a shell and then they bring it all, and nobody’s accounting for the tailback. … He got bumped, and I didn’t make a very good throw. That’s was just kind of how the day went.”
Rivers’ reaction was emblematic of the afternoon for the Chargers. He dropped to his knees and clutched his helmet in frustration.
There was a chance for a poetic ending. Until they scored on a Desmond King punt return at the end of the third quarter, the Chargers were trailing 17-0.
Likewise, the Chargers trailed by 17 points in Rivers’ first career start against Denver 13 years ago. He helped lead his team to a victory in the Mile High City, with touchdown passes to LaDainian Tomlinson and Vincent Jackson down the stretch.
It was a landmark 35-27 victory for a San Diego team that would finish the regular season 14-2, and a talented young quarterback with so much in front of him.
“It felt that way [Sunday] as the third quarter got going,” Rivers said. “It felt like, ‘Here, we go.’”
Instead, it was here we go again.