Turnovers dim Chargers' playoff hopes

SAN DIEGO -- Antonio Gates has been Mr. Reliable for the San Diego Chargers. During his 11-year tenure, Gates lost just two fumbles heading into the 2013 season.

But this year, with a young team needing Gates to make game-changing plays more than ever, Gates has been pressing.

The result is two lost fumbles for Gates this season, including a particularly costly one -- along with a Philip Rivers' interception that was pretty much a fumble -- in San Diego’s head-scratching 17-10 loss to the visiting Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

“I made some plays today that are uncharacteristic of who I am and what I stand for,” Gates said.

Both turnovers occurred on Cincinnati’s side of the field, thwarting potential scoring drives. Keenan Allen also had a fumble late in the game as the rookie receiver attempted to make a play for an offense struggling to move the ball against a talented Cincinnati defense.

The miscues were unusual for a team that had just 13 turnovers all season heading into Sunday’s contest.

“We have to protect the football,” San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. “There’s no excuses -- you can’t turn it over.”

Losers of four of their past five, the Chargers are stumbling to the finish line in Mike McCoy’s first season as the team’s head coach. But in a mediocre AFC, the Chargers still have hope. San Diego is one of four teams at 5-7, and just a game back of the final AFC wild-card spot.

“We obviously know the circumstances,” Rivers said. “But I think we just keep plugging along, keep fighting. We got four to go, and we’re going to play all four of them.”

So did the Chargers let one slip away against a Cincinnati team on the longest road trip of the season?

“To me when you say, ‘Let one slip away,’ that means you’re playing an inferior opponent,” Rivers said. “This is a good team. Now, did we let an opportunity pass us by? Yes. It wasn’t like we had it in our grasp, and they came in and stole it from us.

“It was a good opponent. We knew we were going to have to play well. I thought defensively, arguably, that’s the best defense we’ve played against. We helped them some, but they had a lot to do with it.”

Rivers is right. The Chargers didn’t let this one slip away. Cincinnati litterally took it from them.

The Bengals were the more physical team on Sunday. Along with the three forced turnovers by the offense, San Diego’s defense had no answer for running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard, who helped the Bengals run for 164 yards, including a demoralizing, 12-play drive in which Cincinnati grounded out 4:43 on the clock to salt away the game.

“They’ve got run formations in and we’ve just got to stop them,” San Diego cornerback Shareece Wright said. “It’s all about determination -- just finding a way to stop them from getting those four or five yards on first down.”

Added McCoy: “Defensively, there were 104 yards in the first half they gave up, and then they fell apart. They gave up 250 in the second half.”

Heading down the backstretch of a roller-coaster season, Gates said once again his team’s resolve will be tested.

“When things are going well, it’s easy for guys to go out, practice hard and make plays,” Gates said. “But now we’re dealing with a little adversity at this point. So your character will definitely show up at this point of time during the season.”

Safety Eric Weddle still believes reaching the postseason is an attainable goal.

“We’ll bounce back,” Weddle said. “This team’s not going to quit on anybody, especially in this locker room. Everybody on the outside may think otherwise, but we’re going to fight to the end and see what happens.”