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Colossal collapse means Chargers aren't ready for prime time, or playoffs

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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SAN DIEGO -- When the San Diego Chargers look back on this season and wonder how the West was lost, they can start with Monday's stunning and disgraceful 35-24 meltdown to Denver. It's just the kind of defeat that can ... and might ... sink a season.

Yeah, I know, a loss is a loss is a loss -- except not when it's a loss like this. Not when you blow a 24-0 halftime lead, your quarterback self-destructs and, for the second successive week, you give away a game where you held a double-digit fourth-quarter lead.

And definitely not when you do all that against your only competition in the division.

But that's who the San Diego Chargers are, and after their latest setback, tell me why anyone should believe this team makes it to the playoffs. Because when it had a chance to drop the hammer on Peyton Manning and the Broncos ... when it had a chance to deliver a message the Broncos wouldn't forget ... when it had a chance to prove to its fans at home and millions in TV land that it can and will be the team they envision ... it choked.

"That's obviously as tough as it gets," a shaken Norv Turner said. "Right now, we're not able to play a complete game."

Well, then, that's a problem. And nowhere was it more apparent than when the Chargers self-immolated in one of the greatest second-half collapses in franchise history.

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Some people might remember it for Manning's heroics, and that's understandable. The guy was unconscious in the second half, hitting all but one of 14 passes, throwing for three touchdowns and pulling off his 47th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime -- tying Dan Marino for the most in an NFL career.

But let's be honest, people: Manning doesn't get there without help, and the Chargers were only too willing to pitch in -- and that's where we cue the intro for Philip Rivers. Once one of the most accurate and surest of quarterbacks in the NFL, Rivers the past two seasons has committed atypical and fatal mistakes, with his latest performance his worst.

He had six turnovers by himself. Five of them were in the second half. Two were returned for touchdowns. Another led to a touchdown. That's 21 points on giveaways, and, sorry, you can't survive like that.

Which is why San Diego won't win its division. The Chargers are built on and around Rivers, and if he's no good, neither is this team. It simply can't survive with him getting picked off and dropping the ball as he has the past two seasons, and that's truer now more than ever. Because the quarterback on the team he has to beat ... well, he just doesn't make those mistakes.

So he made one Monday and paid for it. He didn't do it again. The Chargers built a 24-0 first-half lead on 17 points that were the products of Denver turnovers -- two of them on returns -- yet the Broncos somehow survived. But when the Chargers played that game, they were toast, and that has been more the rule than the exception around here -- one reason the team left the field to another chorus of boos.

"You are who you are," tight end Antonio Gates said. "That's the bottom line. There's no way to sugarcoat it. When you turn on the film, that's who you are."

When the Chargers turn on this film, it will look like a horror movie. It was a game they should have won but did not. It was a quarterback (Manning) they have owned, only not on this evening. And it was a game they had to win, just to prove to legions of critics that, yes, as a matter of fact, they do know how to close out an opponent.

Only they don't. All they know is how to beat themselves. Again. Again. And again.

"It's frustrating," linebacker Jarret Johnson said, "because we know how good we are. But we have to figure out how to put a whole game together; we have to figure out when you get somebody down, and there's blood in the water, you got to keep them down. And we didn't do that."

Tell me something we don't know. The Chargers didn't do that against New Orleans last week, either. And, yeah, OK, so they're tied with Denver at the top of the AFC West. They're not as good as the Broncos, and they just proved it on national TV with one of the worst halves ever.

Turner later said it would be unfair to blame one guy for this defeat, and fair enough. So let's blame them all. Rivers stunk. The defense stunk. The Chargers stunk. Granted, that was one half. But it was a half that might well change this season for good.

"There are going to be a lot of people who will count us out, who will say we can't respond and can't come back from this," Turner said. "I have a lot of faith in the guys in the locker room. I have a lot of faith in our veteran leadership. I have a lot of faith in our young guys that are eager to play and play with great energy, and that's not going to change."

Well, I don't have a lot of faith in them. I lost it Monday, and so did a lot of others who witnessed the unimaginable. And, like Turner, that's not going to change. Not now it's not. Denver got a lift from an unexpected victory, and the Chargers got a lesson from an unexpected loss.

"The great thing about this now," Johnson said, "is that the only people who are going to believe in us is us. And we welcome that. We've got a bunch of tough people in this room, and we know what type of team we have."

Unfortunately, so do we.

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