SAN DIEGO -- America's Finest City has a new nickname.
Choke City, USA.
Courtesy of the San Diego Chargers, no matter how hard they try to shake it.
Crooked as a lightning bolt, an object gets lodged in the franchise's windpipe during home playoff games in which the Chargers are favored. San Diego and its team are left blue in the face with Sunday's 17-14 AFC divisional loss to the deserving Jets being the latest example.
It was stunning, yet not.
The Chargers talked afterward like someone had kidnapped their potent offense and robotic kicker and replaced them with aliens.
"It wasn't us out there," tight end Antonio Gates said. "That was not the San Diego Chargers."
|A somber LaDainian Tomlinson knows the drill all too well. 'Losing like this ... it's not the first time.' (Getty Images)|
Coach Norv Turner said his Chargers goofed about 10 times like they had never or seldom during a glorious season.
Recently named an All-Pro, kicker Nate Kaeding had made 69 consecutive field goals within 40 yards when he lined up a 36-yard try in the first quarter.
Hooked it left of the post.
Kaeding came up short on his next try, from 57 yards, and made it a hat trick by pushing a 40-yarder in the fourth quarter with the Jets ahead 17-7.
"It's going to be a tough few months," Kaeding said.
Maybe seeing green gives him the yips. Against the Jets in 2005, Kaeding also was wide right from 40, a miscue that denied the Bolts a playoff victory.
Red was the color that unhinged teammate Vincent Jackson.
Kicking with more force than Kaeding had, Jackson booted the red "review" flag, which Jets coach Rex Ryan had thrown in the fourth quarter. Jackson was angry that the Jets were contesting his tightrope catch on their sideline. Next came a yellow flag for bad conduct. It cost the Chargers 15 yards and precious time.
Who knew that Bolts stood for bolts of yellow cloth on this cloudy afternoon in San Diego? The Bolts drew 10 flags, several of them costly.
"Every time I looked up," Gates said, "we were making a mistake, getting a penalty."
Among the infractions were two personal fouls, and a delay of game penalty that quarterback Philip Rivers had said in October would never again plague the offense.
The signature play of the offense's bizarro first quarter was center Nick Hardwick hiking the ball beyond the 6-foot-5 Rivers. The 11-yard loss contributed to a retreat in enemy ground.
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"We hadn't had one bad snap on shotgun this year," Turner said.
Blowing more electrical fuses, one almost literally, San Diego wasted two timeouts in the first half, further bogging down a team that had won its previous 11 games. Here's how: 1) a headset went fuzzy, leading to confusion as the play clock neared zero; 2) "We sent in the wrong formation," Turner said.
Two was also the number of interceptions thrown by Rivers, both in the third quarter. He had nine in the regular season.
The first of the interceptions will go into Bolts' playoff lore with the other winter gore that has pained this franchise. With San Diego ahead 7-3 in Jets territory -- primed by Quentin Jammer's interception of a Mark Sanchez pass that Steve Gregory had deflected -- Rivers aimed a high pass to the 6-foot-5 Jackson at New York's 17.
Seemingly, the in-his-prime Rivers was about to punish the rookie Sanchez, affirming the truism that postseason football is all about having the better quarterback.
Instead, the ball went off Jackson's hands. Then his leg. Then his back, and onto the legs of cornerback Darrelle Revis. The Jets MVP, who never misses out on a good opportunity, snatched it.
The Chargers still led 7-3 late in the quarter, but it was Rivers who was looking the part of a rookie, making a panicky throw that led to New York going ahead. Feeling a pass rush that wasn't all that stout, he misfired for Jackson, and safety Jim Leonhard caught it to put the Jets at San Diego's 16.
"I threw it a little too soon," Rivers said. "It was not a smart play."
The Chargers got a B-plus game from Ron Rivera's defense, which tossed a first-half shutout.
The Jets got an A-plus game from Rex Ryan's defense, which held the Bolts to half their scoring average.
"They kicked our butts," Tomlinson said. "Best defense we faced all year."
Turner and his players, however, lamented their performance as uncharacteristic, and it was for a team that was the AFC's No. 2 seed and ranked among the NFL's leaders in fewest penalties and turnovers.
Chargers fans who've lived a few decades or longer, however, know that it's just another jar of vinegar poured down the gullet -- whether served up by the Bolts of Coryell or Schottenheimer or Turner, or quarterbacked by Fouts or Brees or Rivers. Just like on Sunday, San Diegans wearing blue jerseys poured into Mission Valley and screamed for favored Bolts teams that would lose playoff games in 1979 (Oilers), 1980 (Raiders), 2005 (Jets) and 2007 (Patriots).
The loss to the Oilers was also by a 17-14 score, and no less of a jolt. Houston was without quarterback Dan Pastorini and running back Earl Campbell. But Vernon Lewis intercepted four passes by Fouts, who, Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman would later report, had been tipping his plays.
The history lessons are lost on Gates. He had insisted this team's "energy" and "maturity" separated this Chargers team from the recent others. He had said on his first day of training camp that the Super Bowl was within this team's grasp.
But at the stadium that should still be known as The Murph, another high-voltage Chargers shorted out.
"Losing like this," said Tomlinson, his voice cracking, "it's not the first time."
Gates walked out of the old stadium and into the parking lot, talking like the whole game was an out-of-body experience.
"We just kept making it tougher for ourselves," said Gates, who had eight catches yet one of the team's four dropped passes. "I can't really tell you why. It was uncharacteristic of our team. These are questions that we'll be asking for the next eight months."