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Season in review: strong finish not enough

Posted Jan 13, 2012

This is the third of a three-part series reviewing the 2011 season. San Diego demolished four of its final five opponents, but was officially eliminated from postseason contention with a disappointing performance at Detroit in Week 16.

SAN DIEGO – The Dec. 24 loss at Detroit stands out as a blight among blowout victories during the final month of the season for San Diego.

For a second consecutive season, the Chargers did not achieve their goal of making the playoffs as they needed to be perfect for a long stretch to end the year – and for a second consecutive season, they nearly were.

San Diego (8-8) dispatched Jacksonville by 24, Buffalo by 27, the AFC’s No. 2 seed Baltimore by 20 and Oakland by 12. Wedged in between the final two wins was the loss at the Lions.

The Bolts struggled against elite quarterbacks and talented, fast receivers at times during the 2011 season, losing to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, New England’s Tom Brady and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford. All three of those quarterbacks finished top five in the NFL in passing yards and passer rating, and the Chargers allowed their teams a combined 118 points.

The loss at Detroit, though, was a massive blow to San Diego, eliminating it from the playoffs the day before Christmas. It was just the fourth time the Chargers lost by more than 14 points in five seasons under Head Coach Norv Turner.

“A lot of it is the matchups and the style of offense. We have not played well against a wide-open spread offense,” Turner said. “We’ve struggled against teams that spread you out and use three or four receivers and we couldn’t get Detroit’s offense off the field on third down.”

The Chargers’ offense controlled the other four December games as San Diego solved its offensive line issues by successfully claiming Jared Gaither off waivers and re-installing Tyronne Green at left guard once he got healthy enough to play.

The line pitched four shutouts in its final five games – one of its best stretches ever. The Chargers’ re-tooled offensive line accomplished that feat for just the third time in franchise history. It hadn’t been done in 30 years.

Buffalo sacked Philip Rivers twice Dec. 11, but one was a fluke play where the ball slipped from Rivers’ hand as he attempted to throw without imminent pressure. Rookie defensive tackle Marcell Dareus was the only defensive player with a sack against the Chargers in the final 20 quarters of the season plus an overtime period.

As a result, Rivers and company scored 38, 37, 34 and 38 points in its four December wins and completed an improbable eighth consecutive season scoring at least 400 points, the longest such stretch by any offense in NFL history.

The Chargers ended a six-game losing streak Dec. 5on Monday Night Football in Jacksonville and generated national buzz by crushing a Baltimore team that finished 12-4. San Diego also knocked Oakland out of the playoffs and ended a three-game slide against the Raiders by winning in the Black Hole on the final day of the regular season.

“Norv said, ‘Weeks like this bring out the worst in you or they bring out the best in you,’” Rivers said after the Oakland win, a game that had no bearing on the outcome of San Diego’s season. “I’ll take that with me forever, because it really does. When it’s tough, let’s find out. It’s easy when it’s going smooth. I think it brought out the best in us today.”

SCORES

San Diego 38, Jacksonville 14
San Diego 37, Buffalo 10
San Diego 34, Baltimore 14
Detroit 38, San Diego 10
San Diego 38, Oakland 26

KEY MOMENTS

• The Chargers snapped a six-game losing streak in emphatic fashion at Jacksonville, blowing open a close game late in the first half. Vincent Brown (22 yards) and Vincent Jackson (35 yards) caught touchdown passes in the final 1:26 of the second quarter, but it was Eric Weddle’s sixth interception of the season that made it possible. San Diego went from trailing 14-10 at the two-minute warning to leading 24-14 at the half and cruised to a 38-14 win.

• San Diego already had built a 23-10 lead, but Steve Gregory’s first career pick-six against Buffalo put the game away with 4:02 left in the third quarter for the Chargers’ first back-to-back wins in nine weeks.

• Vincent Jackson’s 58-yard catch on third-and-8 set up a 1-yard Ryan Mathews touchdown 26 seconds before halftime against Baltimore. Rivers threw a 28-yard touchdown to Malcom Floyd on the first possession of the second half to turn a 10-7 lead into a dominant 24-7 advantage.

• Detroit’s Calvin Johnson speared a 46-yard catch on the first play from scrimmage en route to a huge day by quarterback Stafford. Johnson, double-covered on the play, made the catch despite Chargers defenders who appeared to be in position to at least break up the pass. The Lions scored a touchdown on the drive, followed by a field goal and two touchdowns in their four first-half possessions.

• Carson Palmer, who played great against the Chargers the last two seasons, led back-to-back scoring drives in the third and fourth quarter to get Oakland within 31-26 in the season finale. The Raiders, playing at home, needed a win to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. But Mike Tolbert ran for 40 yards on first-and-20 and then Rivers found Floyd for a 43-yard touchdown to secure the outcome and avoid a losing season.

STUDS

• Philip Rivers had a subpar game against Detroit, but went video-game crazy in the four December wins. His passer rating in the games: 146.1, 123.3, 127.1 and 135.1. For reference, 2012 MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers led the NFL with a passer rating of 122.5.

• Ryan Mathews rushed for 316 yards and three touchdowns in wins against Jacksonville, Buffalo and Baltimore in addition to 11 catches for 55 yards.

• Malcom Floyd had games of 108, 96, 95 and 127 yards in the final five weeks, scoring a touchdown in each.

• Mike Tolbert, voted Special Teams Player of the Year by his teammates, made a combined nine tackles in kick coverage against Jacksonville and Buffalo.

Antwan Barnes sacked his former team Baltimore four times and added another against Buffalo to give him five in the final five games.

Cam Thomas made three sacks in the final five games, or half his career total through two seasons.

INJURIES

Travis LaBoy (knee) missed the final two games of the season.

• Vincent Jackson (groin) was less than 100 percent the final two games of the season and missed practice all week before playing against Detroit.

• Mathews (calf) missed Week 17 against Oakland. Mathews battled through injuries several times during the season, but it was just the second time it forced him to miss a game all year.

Corey Liuget (leg) missed the Monday Night Football game at Jacksonville.

Jacques Cesaire (ankle) missed the last two games of the season, though he was healthy enough to play against Oakland.

Darrell Stuckey (groin) missed the Buffalo game.

Bront Bird (knee) missed the season finale at Oakland.
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