National Columnist

After surprising first half, Chargers, Texans resume their familiar roles

SAN DIEGO -- The Texans have a bunch of players who know how to win. Bless their heart, the Chargers have a bunch of players who know how to lose. Even as I write that, it sounds like psychological gobbledygook.

But I was in Qualcomm Stadium for this game. If you were watching here in person or there on television, you saw the same thing I saw. You saw the Houston Texans fall way behind and just keep going, trying, driving, believing. And you saw the San Diego Chargers get way ahead and let up, ease up, screw up, give up.

By the end of Monday night, what we had seen was a last-second 31-28 victory on the road that could propel the Texans to great things this season -- and a loss at home that will be awfully hard for the Chargers to overcome.

Texans kicker Randy Bullock kicked a 41-yard field goal as time expired to finish off a 21-point comeback in the final 20 minutes.

The Chargers led 28-7 with five minutes remaining in the third quarter when the Texans remembered who they were. And the Chargers, bless their hearts, remembered they're the Chargers.

Who are the Chargers? Quite possibly the most underachieving franchise in recent NFL history, then a mediocrity, then a 7-9 loser last season -- all of which caused the dismissal of general manager A.J. Smith and coach Norv Turner.

The GM is new (Tom Telesco from the Colts) and the coach is new (Mike McCoy from the Broncos), but the players are mostly the same. And the quarterback is absolutely the same. And while Philip Rivers has put up at least 3,500 passing yards and 25 touchdowns in each of the past five seasons, his passer rating has plummeted and his sacks and turnovers have risen and the Chargers haven't been able to find a suitable replacement for future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson. And even when the Chargers had Tomlinson and a younger, healthier Antonio Gates at tight end -- not to mention a younger, more mobile Philip Rivers at quarterback -- they were perhaps the most underachieving franchise in recent NFL history.

Losing is learned behavior, and the Chargers learned it so well that it cost Turner and Smith their jobs. But the players who learned it, and earned it, are still here. And you saw what happened Monday night. The going got tough, and they collapsed. Then they quit. Statistical evidence to come.

But for three quarters, the Chargers had everything go right. Houston's first play from scrimmage was a batted pass that was picked off. San Diego's first play from scrimmage -- the snap after that interception -- was a 14-yard touchdown pass from Rivers to running back Ryan Mathews.

That's how it went for three quarters for the Chargers. When Houston scored a touchdown -- Andre Johnson's 67-yard catch-and-fall-and-go touchdown -- it was reversed by replay that (apparently) showed Johnson was touched on his way to the ground. When the Chargers didn't score a touchdown on third-and-goal in the final seconds of the first half, replay reversed that and said, yes, the Chargers did score.

When the Texans had a field-goal try, they missed it. And so on. Everything that could go right for the Chargers did, and Rivers was pumping his fist at the new coach and the crowd was ecstatic and the crowd was even leaving, because it was 28-7 and there were 20 minutes left and this was Monday night and there was work in the morning.

But because this is San Diego -- and because that was Houston -- that was premature evacuation by Chargers fans.

The Texans didn't go away. Instead they drove 70 yards for a touchdown to get within 28-14 with 4:57 left in the third quarter. And they drove 75 yards for another touchdown to make it 28-21 with 14:44 left in the game. And then after the Houston offense finally stopped working, the Houston defense took over.

Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt, quiet for most of the game, ruined one of San Diego's fourth-quarter series by tackling Mathews for a loss on first down and batting down a Rivers pass on third down. On the Chargers' next possession, on the first play, Rivers threw a pass intended for Danny Woodhead out of the backfield that Texans linebacker Brian Cushing dived to intercept. Cushing got up and followed a phalanx of blockers into the end zone to tie the game at 28 with 9:30 left.

The game wasn't over, but it was. All we needed was the name of the Texans' final hero. And it turns out his name was Randy Bullock, the second-year kicker out of Texas A&M drafted in the fifth round in 2012. He spent last year on injured reserve with a pulled groin, and he missed his first career attempt earlier Monday when he pulled a 51-yarder to the left. But his first career field goal was a 41-yarder that won the game.

The team that lost the game? The Chargers gained 212 yards in the first half. They gained 42 yards in the third quarter. And only 9 yards in the fourth quarter. They were good, then they were bad, then they weren't even trying.

Norv Turner is gone, but this sure did look like the same old San Diego Chargers.

By the time Bullock was lining up for his 41-yard kick, the crowd was gone. If he misses it, the game goes to overtime, and that would have been embarrassing. An overtime game, Monday Night Football, with nobody in the crowd. But this is San Diego, and the crowd knew the same thing as the Chargers:

The Texans were going to win, because that's what they do. And the Chargers were going to lose because ... bless 'em. That's what they do.

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