Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Could there be a greater symbol of the disaster that has become the 2008 San Diego Chargers?
This was supposed to be a Super Bowl team. This was supposed to be the culmination of years of knocking on the door and of compiling perhaps the deepest roster in the NFL. The Chargers won a combined 25 games the past two regular seasons. They went to the AFC title game last season.
This was supposed to be a season-long celebration.
Sunday, though, in the 12th game of the season, there was no celebration for the Chargers and beleaguered coach Norv Turner. The Chargers ran scared all day. They wanted to escape reality. They wanted to escape the fact that Denver, a team that won 16 games the past two seasons and has put 12 players on the injured reserve this season, is running away with the division.
Every NFL score but one was on the scoreboard throughout the Chargers' game against Atlanta. The Chargers never showed the Denver score. Perhaps they didn't want the fans, who continued their recent trend of booing the home team loudly, to know that Denver was laying it on the favored Jets in New Jersey. Perhaps the scoreboard operators didn't want the Chargers to see the cold, hard facts.
"I noticed that it wasn't up there," Chargers safety Eric Weddle said. "Maybe they didn't want us to think about it."
When Weddle was informed that Denver beat the Jets 34-17, he had an incredulous look on his face. Then he shook his head. After San Diego's 22-16 loss to Atlanta on Sunday, what else can the team do other than shake its head?
San Diego, which has lost five of its past six games, is 4-8 heading into a Thursday night home game against Oakland. The best the Chargers can finish is 8-8. They trail the 7-5 Broncos by three games with four games to go.
If Denver wins two of its final four games, it will win its first AFC West title in three years and fulfill coach Mike Shanahan's preseason prediction that the team would make the playoffs.
"I'm kind of at a loss for words right now," San Diego tight end Antonio Gates said. "That was not San Diego Chargers football. ... This one hurts."
The following are some key elements to the game for the staggering Chargers:
No offense: Gates was beside himself over the lousy offensive effort by his team. He said the Chargers "laid an egg" on offense Sunday. That assessment can't be argued.
San Diego's offense, which has been the team's best unit this season, stalled all game. It had 201 total yards. San Diego's two touchdowns were sponsored by huge Atlanta fumbles. One scoring drive started at the Atlanta 20; the other touchdown San Diego scored was an 86-yard fumble return by Weddle.
"We just never got going very good," quarterback Philip Rivers said of the Chargers, who committed nine penalties for 84 yards.
LT struggles: It was a tough day for Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who has had a tough season. Tomlinson did become the fifth player in NFL history to run for 10,000 yards and catch 500 passes, but that was the end of the happy times for him Sunday.
He finished with 24 rushing yards on 14 carries. He averaged 1.7 yards per carry. It was Tomlinson's second-lowest rushing total of his eight-season career.
While Tomlinson struggled, his former backup, Michael Turner, continued his strong season for Atlanta. He had 120 yards on 31 carries. Turner signed with Atlanta in the offseason after being an effective backup for Tomlinson.
His breakout season has corresponded with one of Tomlinson's worst. Tomlinson, 29, played with a turf toe injury the first half of the season. Yet, he has struggled all season. He clearly misses former lead blocker Lorenzo Neal, and San Diego's run blocking has been suspect at times.
Tomlinson had no explanation for the lack of execution in the run game Sunday.
"We got our butts kicked," Tomlinson said. "Plan and simple, we got our butts kicked today."
Where do the Chargers go from here? Tomlinson gave a rare pep talk to the team after the game. He just wanted to make sure the Chargers don't fall further apart in the final month of the season.
"The message was don't give up and don't quit," Tomlinson said. "This is not a team that is going to quit."
Several players echoed Tomlinson. Still, something is going to have to give. The Chargers have been a major disappointment. Yes, they lost star linebacker Shawne Merriman, but they have suffered very few other major injuries.
"This is basically the same team from last season," Weddle said. "It's frustrating. You go through the season and everyone else seems to get better, but we're not. I don't understand it."
The San Diego brass already has said Turner will return next season despite this season's failures. Tomlinson said Sunday that the Chargers probably will say goodbye to some players after the season, because, as Tomlinson put it, something has to give.
"We know that Norv will be back, so what do you do? You have to a change with players," Tomlinson said. "If you're losing, you expect that, and that's our own fault."