One lousy yard. Three feet. Thirty-six inches. That was all that separated the Chargers from a stunning, possibly season-turning come-from-behind victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
It turned out to be the longest yard.
Twice in the final 34 seconds, first from the one-yard line and then from inside the one, the Chargers handed the ball to Melvin Gordon, their burly running back known for his physicality and ball security. Gordon had fumbled only 10 times on his 1,106 touches in four-plus seasons before Sunday.
Gordon was stopped short of the goal line on his first attempt, his apparent touchdown overruled by instant replay. He fumbled the ball away on his second try, turning what looked to be an improbable win into a devastating, bewildering 23-20 loss that dropped the Chargers to 2-5.
“You don’t get one yard, then you don’t deserve to win the damn game,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said, the frustration obvious in his voice. “That’s just the way it is. We needed one yard to win this game, and we let it slip out of our hands. I’m at a loss for words right now.”
The Chargers seemed headed for a third straight loss when Derrick Henry’s 11-yard touchdown run gave Tennessee a 23-13 lead with 6 minutes 39 seconds left.
But quarterback Philip Rivers needed only 1:30 to drive the Chargers 75 yards in four plays, his 41-yard touchdown pass to Austin Ekeler — who beat linebacker Wesley Woodyard with a stop-and-go route down the right sideline — pulling the Chargers to within 23-20 with 5:09 left.
A fourth-down stop of the Titans by the Chargers defense gave Rivers the ball back on the L.A. 49-yard line with 2:35 left. Passes of six yards and 10 yards to Mike Williams and a 19-yard completion to Ekeler on a slant route moved the ball to the Titans’ 16-yard line with 44 seconds left.
“At that point, it’s, ‘Don’t relax, let’s go win the game,’ ” Rivers said. “But you feel pretty confident that you got three points, you go into overtime at the worst. Don’t turn it over, but let’s go win it.”
Ekeler ran an angle route out of the backfield, caught a pass from Rivers over the middle and barreled into three defenders near the goal line, with one official signaling touchdown with 39 seconds left.
Ekeler lost a fumble when he leaped and extended the ball into the end zone from one yard out in a 13-10 loss to Detroit in Week 2. He wasn’t about to make the same mistake Sunday, so he cradled the ball in his chest as he fell back toward the goal line.
“There was no need,” Ekeler said when asked if he considered reaching for the end zone. “We had time. I for sure laid out trying to get in, but I was diving into three guys. There’s no way I’m going to reach out there.”
The Chargers celebrated what they thought was a game-winning score. Instead, the call was reversed, with replay officials ruling the ball didn’t cross the plane of the goal line.
“I thought Ekeler was in,” Rivers said. “This isn’t me complaining about the refs. They obviously saw something they could overturn. What I saw … from one end-zone shot, it might be a little short, but how do you know for certain that that much of the football wasn’t touching the front part of that white line?
“I thought with it being a called touchdown on the field, it would be hard to overturn. But we had our chances after that and couldn’t make it right.”
A false-start penalty on guard Dan Feeney pushed the Chargers back to the five. A pass-interference call on Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler moved the ball back to the one.
Gordon took a handoff from Rivers and tried to burrow under the Titans line. Again, an official signaled touchdown. Again, the call was reversed by replay.
The Chargers, out of timeouts, had time to run one more play before spiking the ball and kicking a game-tying field goal. On the sidelines, defensive end Joey Bosa sought help from a higher power.
“I hate that I did it, but right before the last play, I said, ‘Please don’t fumble,’ ” Bosa said. “I literally said the words as they were hiking the ball.”
Gordon tried to muscle his way into the end zone. Woodyard punched the ball out of Gordon’s hand. The ball bounced a few times off the pile of humanity and was snagged by Tennessee tackle Jurrell Casey with 15 seconds left.
No touchdown was signaled, but an on-field ruling of no-gain was switched by replay to a fumble, a call the Chargers did not dispute.
“I was desperate, trying to get in the end zone — he got a good hit on it and knocked it out,” Gordon said, his voice barely above a whisper. “I’m going to bet on myself every time in that situation. I just couldn’t get it done this time. This one is gonna sit with me for a little while until I go back out there on the field and redeem myself.”