Here is a six-pack of the top lessons learned from the 19-16 loss to the Oakland Raiders.
1. Another Fourth Quarter Collapse – The Chargers have held a fourth quarter lead in nine of their 14 games this season. Unfortunately, they've lost seven of those contests, the most recent coming Sunday against the Raiders. The Bolts had a 16-13 lead when the final quarter got under way, but a pair of turnovers and big plays surrendered on defense contributed to another late game collapse. Head Coach Mike McCoy bluntly assessed how sick the team is of those late game struggles while pointing to a need to put the game away earlier:
"(It) sucks. It's tough. Like we mentioned, (we) can't turn the ball over (a) couple times there in the fourth quarter. I have to say, though, let's look at the whole game. I understand you have to make those plays at the end of the game, but we made some mistakes early on. We missed some opportunities… We let them run the ball the first couple plays of the two-minute drive to go down there and move the football. Against a good team like we played today, you can't make those mistakes. But it goes back to the whole game and not just the fourth quarter."
2. Special Teams Miscues Continue – Another theme of the season has been inconsistency in the kicking game, which once again plagued the Bolts. It began from the opening kickoff when a holding call forced the offense to start at their own nine-yard line. It wasn't the only mistake on the third side of the ball as the Chargers also missed an extra point and kicked the ball out of bounds to being the second half. Once again, McCoy was frustrated over the special teams' struggles:
"Too many errors in the kicking game whether it's penalties, (bad) decisions, blocked extra point, kicking the ball out of bounds to start the second half. Mistakes like that."
3. More Untimely Turnovers – As mentioned earlier, the Chargers were done in by a pair of fourth quarter turnovers. The Bolts have coughed the ball up 32 times on the year, which is the most in the NFL. Moreover, the majority of those turnovers have come in the final 15 minutes. While Rivers' pick was the QB trying to desperately force a completion on a 4th-and-15 the team had to convert, it was Kenneth Farrow's fumble that proved to be the turning point. After an impressive run to power ahead for four yards on 3rd-and-3, the rookie was stripped on the next snap by Perry Riley as Malcom Smith pounced on the ball at the San Diego 13. It set up the game-tying field goal, giving momentum to the Raiders. It was déjà vu for McCoy, who has seen too many late game turnovers by his offense:
"Critical. That's a critical mistake. Unfortunately, they kind of fumbled the one ball and then at the end there, when we're trying for fourth and long there, in the situation trying to get the first down there, got forced into fourth and long…You want to be in the plus and unfortunately we were way behind that. We've got to protect the football. Kenny has done a nice job of that for the most part, but putting the ball on the ground is unacceptable. We've got to protect that ball. It's an issue we've been dealing with all year long. I always say, there's different reasons for each one, and then at the end when those are going to happen, it's fourth and long, things like that and you're trying to make a play, you're going to force that ball in there"
4. Ground Game Struggles Doom Bolts – The Chargers struggled on the ground on both sides of the ball. With Melvin Gordon out with hip and knee injuries, Farrow and Ronnie Hillman combined for only 73 yards on 22 carries (3.3 ypc). Perhaps more surprising was how the team struggled to stuff the run. San Diego ranked seventh in the league entering the contest, and held teams under 100 yards rushing in nine of their 13 games. However, they surrendered a season-high 145 yards as Oakland averaged 5.0 ypc. Raiders Head Coach Jack Del Rio said establishing a strong ground attack was a key part of the team's game plan:
"I thought we had an opportunity to hit some of those today and certainly you're showing the offensive line that you believe in them anytime when you're running the ball."
5. A New Career Best for Philip Rivers – Number 17 has led some of the NFL's most explosive offenses during his tenure. However, this year he's taken it to new heights. On his 47-yard TD strike to Travis Benjamin to open the game, Rivers set a new mark for most completions over 40 yards in a season with 15 on the year. The fact it came on the first drive should come as no surprise as Rivers has been lights out in that situation all season long. In fact, he has a perfect passer rating (158.3) on game-opening drives, completing 37 of 44 for 532 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. Benjamin recalled the touchdown after the game, describing it from his vantage point:
"It was a play we dialed up and we've been practicing all week. So when we saw the coverage we needed to have, Philip threw it up and I had a chance to get up underneath it and score a touchdown."
6. Reed Keeps Rising – A bright spot in recent weeks has been the play of unknown cornerback Trovon Reed. Finally getting his chance after spending time on four practice squads the last two years, the converted wide receiver has a pair of picks in each of his last two games. Both times, Reed intercepted the ball near the goal line, raising his game at critical junctures. McCoy made a point of praising Reed in his postgame press conference, while the cornerback himself credited those around him:
"I give all the credit to the coaches and players for believing in me. Having guys like Jahleel Addae trust me to go out there with the game on the line and cover a Pro Bowler like Michael Crabtree. I thank those guys for boosting my confidence and believing in me. It goes a long way. I can go out there and play free with nothing to lose."