SAN DIEGO -- Forty-four uniformed Chargers had slumped off the field on a shocking afternoon that got grayer as the day went on.
The last Charger standing on the field was defensive lineman Antonio Garay. As he headed off the field, Garay suddenly took off his helmet and drop-kicked it about 15 yards.
The mood didn’t lighten in the moments to follow. Members of the Spanos family, which owns the team, marched through the halls of Qualcomm Stadium with matching looks of disbelief on their faces. Many San Diego players quickly dressed and headed to the parking lot and a sudden offseason.
“How in the hell did this happen?” San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman asked no one in particular.
There was no way San Diego thought its Super Bowl run would end in a New York minute. Yet, the reality in San Diego is another failed playoff run after the Jets’ running game and tenacious defense took over in the second half of a 17-14 upset of the Chargers.
San Diego, which led 7-0 at the half, entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a legitimate threat to win its first Super Bowl. The Chargers were 13-3 and ended the regular season with 11 straight wins. They were clicking in all three phases. They were playing nearly flawlessly.
And then Sunday happened. The Chargers went out and played their worst game of the season.
The Chargers, whose previous low score this season was 20 points, were horribly sloppy on offense. Quarterback Philip Rivers threw two second-half interceptions. He was intercepted only nine times in the regular season. San Diego was penalized 10 times for 87 yards. All-Pro kicker Nate Kaeding missed three field goals, including two inside 40 yards. Entering the game, he had made 29 straight field goals from inside the 40.
“Compete lack of focus, a complete lack of discipline,” Merriman said. "And that’s not us. That had never happened this season before. That’s why this is so hard. It was totally out of character and totally unexpected.”
The final result was another cold ending to the NFL season in paradise.
The Chargers have been to the playoffs five of the past six seasons, but haven't gotten past the AFC title game. In 2004 and 2006, San Diego was upset at home in its first playoff game. In 2004, the Jets beat the Chargers after Kaeding missed a 40-yarder that would have won the game. In 2006, the Chargers were beaten in the divisional round at home by New England.
In Norv Turner’s first two seasons, San Diego won playoff games before bowing out. Sunday’s loss brought back crushing memories.
“It does make you wonder,” San Diego linebacker Stephen Cooper said. “It brings back those memories … This will be with me until we start training camp. This is hard.”
The sudden ending also will bring up questions about the Chargers’ ability to ever win a Super Bowl. Expect an offseason full of questions about whether San Diego’s window of opportunity has closed.
That may be a bit premature because the centerpiece of the organization, Rivers, is only 28 and he has gotten better in each of his four years as a starter. As long as Rivers is around, the Chargers will be a contender.
But there could be changes in San Diego.
At the top of the list has to be the status of running back LaDainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson, 30, saw his production slip dramatically this season. He did not have a productive game Sunday, rushing for 24 yards on 12 carries.
Tomlinson is owed $5 million in 2010 and the Chargers barely brought him back in 2009. It has to be considered a strong possibility that the Chargers, who ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing this season, will look for a new starting tailback in 2010.
In the recent past, Tomlinson, a sure future Hall of Famer, said he will not retire. Sunday, he sounded like a beaten man.
“It’s very disappointing to think about the future,” Tomlinson said. Asked if he wants to come back in 2010, Tomlinson said: “I can’t tell you that right now.”
When asked if this was his last game in San Diego, Tomlinson said: “I don’t know. I’m not sure. I’ve heard all of the speculation. But I’ll tell you want, I’ve had a heck of a time here and if it is [the end], I’ve enjoyed the ride.”
In addition to Tomlinson, several key San Diego players are due to be unrestricted or restricted free agents, including Merriman, wide receiver Vincent Jackson, running back Darren Sproles and left tackle Marcus McNeill. Thus, the unexpected end of the season could be the start of a busy offseason in San Diego.
At the very least, it is an earlier start to the offseason than anyone in San Diego could have imagined.
“I’m in shock,” said long snapper David Binn, the longest tenured player on the team. “It’s surreal to think the season is over.”