Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
SAN DIEGO -- Chargers defensive lineman Jacques Cesaire tried to digest another last-second loss that has put the preseason Super Bowl favorite on the brink of playoff extinction.
Finally, Cesaire gave up trying to figure out how this team has become, at 4-7, a playoff picture outsider.
"We just can't catch a break," Cesaire sighed.
So true in a sense. The latest chapter came in Sunday night's 23-20 loss to Indianapolis, which ended with cold-blooded, last-minute super hero, Adam Vinatieri, booting a 51-yard field goal as time expired. The Chargers, who fought back from a 20-10 deficit with less than six minutes to go, have now lost four games in the final minute, including last week at Pittsburgh. The Chargers fell to 0-2 with last-second killers to Carolina and Denver. San Diego lost those four games by a total of seven points.
From being in the San Diego locker room, one gets the feeling that the Chargers are starting to think this: It just might not be our year after all.
That's a bitter pill for a team that won 25 regular-season games the past two years and advanced to the AFC title game last season. Many NFL personnel folks believe the 2008 Chargers are as talented as any team in the league.
Yet, they just can't win games.
"It's like Groundhog Day," San Diego linebacker Shaun Phillips said. "The same old thing keeps on happening over and over again."
Added safety Eric Weddle: "It's emotionally draining what we are going through right now. It's so tough."
They just can't catch a break.
However, San Diego did catch a huge break about an hour before kickoff Sunday night. The AFC West-leading Denver Broncos, fresh off two impressive road wins, were embarrassed at home by Oakland, 31-10. The Broncos' failure opened the door for the Chargers. San Diego, which play host to Denver (6-5) in the regular-season finale Dec. 28, could have moved within one game of the Broncos.
"We all knew what happened in Denver [Sunday]," Weddle said. "We were excited about it. We knew it was our chance to get back within striking distance."
It didn't happen. The 4-7 Chargers still trail Denver by two games. The big problem for San Diego is that there are only five games remaining. Time is getting short for the Chargers.
Still, it's difficult to proclaim this team is dead. The truth is, for the past two weeks, San Diego has played well.
It isn't like earlier in the season when this team was horribly inconsistent. Horribly inconsistent has been replaced by horribly unfortunate the past two weeks. The Steelers and Colts are two strong teams. San Diego stood toe-to-toe, but it just couldn't close the door.
"We have to find a way to close these things out," San Diego tight end Antonio Gates said. "I can't believe what has been happening."
I get the sense that this team feels most frustrated by the fact that they know they should be controlling the division. You get the feeling the Chargers feel they are a better team than Denver, but they just can't dig themselves out of the hole they created earlier in the season.
Last season, San Diego didn't have many close calls. This season, it can't blow teams out. It has put itself in the position for questionable officials' calls -- there were a couple more Sunday night -- to play a role.
"We had our chances," San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said, summarizing both the Chargers' game against the Colts and the season.
The Chargers appeared so agitated Sunday night that they wanted to call the NFL and ask if Sunday's home game against Atlanta could be moved up to Monday. They want to get back on the field and prove to their fans, to the NFL, to the Denver Broncos and to themselves that they can win a game.
"We just need one of these things to go our way -- just one," Weddle said. "You can't sit here and say this team is not playing good ball right now. We have improved. We lost two close games to two really good ball clubs. We know we can get rolling if we can just fight through this."
There's no doubt the Chargers were more impressive than the Broncos on Sunday. The San Diego defense has played very well in the three games since inside linebacker coach Ron Rivera replaced Ted Cottrell as defensive coordinator. In Cottrell's two final games, San Diego allowed 60 points. In Rivera's three games as coordinator, San Diego has allowed 53 points. Peyton Manning was highly efficient Sunday night, but he didn't destroy San Diego's defense.
Somehow, in the midst of all the misery, there is some hope for the Chargers. If they can be the team they were the past two weeks and get the right bounces, and if Denver stays the team it was Sunday, the division race isn't over.
Still, San Diego will have to find a way to win a string of games. And that just hasn't happened in the first 11 games of what was expected to be a special season.
"There are no guarantees," said Chargers coach Norv Turner, who was given a vote of confidence last week by the team's brass, which said he will return in 2009. "You go out and fight."
The Chargers have the fight part down. They just aren't getting the decisions.