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Uncharacteristic play dooms Chargers
The Chargers won 13 games and their fourth-consecutive AFC West title this season by playing smart football, protecting the ball, avoiding costly penalties and preventing the big play on defense.
They were unable to do those things Sunday and in turn suffered a 17-14 loss at the hands of the New York Jets in a Divisional Playoff game at Qualcomm Stadium.
“To get in this game, what you’d like to have happen is play your best game,” Head Coach Norv Turner said. “You’d like to be playing your best games in January, in games like this. Certainly for whatever reason, we did not do that today. We didn’t play our best game and it’s disappointing.”
The Chargers were penalized 10 times for 87 yards Sunday. It was the second most fouls in a game and the most penalty yards all year. Prior to Sunday, the longest run they’d allowed all season was 36 yards. Jets rookie Shonn Greene’s 53-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter gave the Jets a 10-point lead.
San Diego converted only 4-of-13 third down opportunities, their third lowest total of the season, and All-Pro kicker Nate Kaeding missed three field goals against New York, the same number he missed throughout the entire regular-season.
“There’s no one thing you can point at,” defensive end Luis Castillo said. “There’s no one thing where you can point the blame. We made a lot of mental mistakes in terms of penalties and personal fouls.”
While the Chargers’ play was uncharacteristic of their season, New York followed the same formula they’ve ridden throughout the year as Rex Ryan’s team advanced to next Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the Colts. The Jets ran the ball 39 times for 169 yards and forced two turnovers on defense.
In the first half the Chargers limited New York to zero points, two first downs and just 99 total yards and forced three-and-outs on their first four offensive drives. But the Jets’ defense, which led the NFL in fewest points allowed, total yards and passing yards during the season, limited the Chargers to a single Kris Wilson touchdown that made it a 7-0 contest at halftime.
“We did some good things in the first half but the whole game was kind of a surprise to us because we’d been getting big leads as a team,” linebacker Stephen Cooper said. “Our offense had been rolling. Our defense had a lot of opportunities out there to stop them and we didn’t do that enough.”
The Jets got on the scoreboard on their first drive of the third quarter when Jay Feely kicked a 46-yard field goal. The score remained 7-3 until Mark Sanchez threw a two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dustin Keller early in the fourth quarter. Then New York took its first lead of the day when Greene broke through the line and raced 53 yards on a 3rd-and-4.
“Guys missed tackles,” linebacker Shawne Merriman said. “We had two or three guys that missed tackles. Down the stretch you can’t do that. You can’t do that against a team that you know is going to run the ball. It wasn’t a shock coming into this game.”
The Chargers had an opportunity to make it a one-score game with 4:42 remaining, but Kaeding’s 40-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right. San Diego’s defense forced a three-and-out on New York’s ensuing possession, and the lead was quickly cut to three on Philip Rivers’ one-yard touchdown run.
With only one timeout and the two-minute warning to stop the clock, punter Mike Scifres attempted an onside kick that was recovered by Kerry Rhodes. The Jets took over with 2:12 left, and Thomas Jones’ two yard run on 4th-and-1 gave New York the victory.
“These games come down to a few plays,” Turner said. “There were some great efforts out there. Defensively I thought we did an awful lot of good things. We made mistakes that we normally don’t and we didn’t do enough good things.”
Rivers completed 27 of 40 passes for 298 yards. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson caught seven of them for a team-high 111 yards, while tight end Antonio Gates had an eight-catch, 93-yard day. Cornerback Quentin Jammer provided San Diego’s only takeaway, a third-quarter interception. Cooper led the club with nine tackles.
Coming into Sunday, the Chargers had won 11-consecutive games to earn a first-round bye. The words “disappointed” and “uncharacteristic” were the most common ones heard in their postgame locker room, and understandably so.
“We’d dealt with a lot of adversity and there really wasn’t anything that we hadn’t seen,” Gates said. “To come out and lay an egg in this game, words can’t really describe how I feel, how this team feels at this point.”