The Chargers have won only twice this season.
On Sunday, they thought they won two more times and instead left Tennessee with nothing but one bitter, almost impossible loss.
“We went to the sideline twice like, ‘All right, that’s the game,’ ” tight end Hunter Henry said. “To have that happen toward the end … one of the craziest games I’ve ever been in.”
During a stretch in which the Chargers have struggled to move the ball on the ground, they lost because they couldn’t gain one yard on consecutive running plays in the final 34 seconds.
The latter of those failures ended when Melvin Gordon fumbled into the end zone and the Titans recovered to secure a 23-20 victory.
Before that, the Chargers saw two plays that were initially ruled as touchdowns get overturned by replay.
A team desperate for a victory exhaled twice thinking it had finally succeeded only to then — upon further review — absorb consecutive punches to the stomach.
“This was a tough one,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “I have been in the league for a long time, and I have never been in a game like this. The emotions of this game, going from winning the game to losing the game in a matter of seconds …”
On the Chargers’ final play from scrimmage, Gordon was originally ruled to be down before the ball came out.
Already in position to at least attempt an abundantly makeable tying field goal, the Chargers suffered an excruciating fate: a third consecutive reversal (in the span of 44 seconds) that went against them.
The call was changed to a fumble, the fifth time this season the Chargers have turned the ball over in a goal-to-go situation.
“It’s very difficult, especially when it makes you 2-5,” wide receiver Keenan Allen said. “No good. No good at all. It’s going to leave a taste.”
The loss was the Chargers’ third in a row and fifth in six games. A team that advanced to the second round of the postseason a year ago because of its ability to make plays late fell to 1-5 in one-score games.
One of those dramatic victories in 2018 came over Tennessee in London when the Chargers’ defense rose to stop a two-point conversion in the final 35 seconds for a 20-19 triumph.
Exactly one year later, the Titans gained their waning-moments revenge.
“You get down to the one-yard line,” Henry said. “That’s the ideal scenario you want. That’s the ideal guy you want to have the ball too.”
Said Lynn, “You expect to get six inches, and we didn’t.”
Gordon, who finished with only 32 yards in 16 carries, was deemed by the officials to have scored on a one-yard run immediately before the play on which he fumbled. That call was reversed.
Two plays before that, the officials signaled that Austin Ekeler had scored on what would have been a 16-yard pass from Philip Rivers with 39 seconds left. That call also was reversed.
Instead of trotting off the field with the lead, the Chargers then had to watch helplessly as Tennessee’s players celebrated wildly when defensive lineman Jurrell Casey recovered the fumble and then again when the original call was changed.
“It’s a tough way to lose, but we didn’t need to make it that close of a game,” offensive lineman Dan Feeney said. “There were a bunch of plays we’re going to see tonight, tomorrow that could have helped us win.”
Ah, yes, tomorrow, as in, where do the Chargers go from here? This was a team considered to be a contender to win the AFC. Roster-wise, the Chargers returned largely intact coming off their 12-4 season.
Now, they are tied with Denver for last place in the AFC West, already three games behind Kansas City. Only winless Cincinnati, winless Miami and the one-win New York Jets have a poorer record in the conference.
“I told our players that one yard can bring us together or tear us apart,” Lynn said. “With the character that we have in that locker room, I do believe this group will rally. We will fight, and we will be back.”
Things have been so bad lately for the Chargers that, in the second quarter Sunday, they did something they hadn’t done since last month — they took a lead.
On third and goal at the Titans’ one-yard line, Rivers hit Gordon, who leaked out into the left flat and was wide open.
Chase McLaughlin’s extra point made it 10-3, the Chargers’ first lead since they won 30-10 on Sept. 29 in Miami. The touchdown was the first for Gordon since the playoffs last season.
That lead couldn’t survive a series, however, as the Titans drove right back (eight plays, 86 yards) to tie the score at 10 on an eight-yard pass from Ryan Tannehill to Corey Davis.
From there, the Chargers were back to being in one of their weekly struggles, falling behind 23-13 with 6:39 remaining in the fourth quarter before rallying to close within three points and then within maybe three inches before coming up short.
And now comes the hard part.
“I mean, I have one answer,” defensive end Joey Bosa, who recorded two sacks Sunday, said when asked how this team might respond. “I’m gonna come in and work my ass off for the rest of the season.
“I can’t control anything else. I know we have a lot of guys who want to win and who want to work, and we’ll see who’s with me on Monday. You can find out who really wants it pretty quick after a game like that, but I’ll be one of them.”
Together or otherwise, the Chargers have no choice but to move forward.