Chargers left to wonder when it will change

Mike Tolbert and the San Diego Chargers are struggling to avoid costly mistakes. Harry How/Getty Images

SAN DIEGO -- Just because the San Diego Chargers have been here before, it doesn’t mean they know the escape route or they are positive the usual late-season revival is in the works.

I heard the word “hope” a lot in the losing locker room Sunday. It’s getting to the point where it seems as if the Chargers are starting to wonder themselves if the Keystone Kops act is ever going to end. Doubt may be creeping in by the Pacific Ocean.

Asked when he thinks the Chargers will finally put their mistakes behind them, safety Eric Weddle replied: “I hope it’s next week against Tennessee. ... I hope it’s soon.”

The truth is the Chargers are one game from the halfway point of their season and they're 2-5. And they're 2-5 because they continue to make the same mistakes, loss after frustrating loss.

Sunday’s 23-20 loss to New England had a familiar look: turnovers, special-teams follies and a late rally that fell short. All the major ingredients of San Diego’s self-inflicted defeat cocktail.

“Until we stop making those same mistakes,” Weddle said, “we will not win. I hope it changes soon.”

The Chargers -- who have two tough games coming up against Tennessee and Houston before the bye -- and their fans would be fooling themselves if they were to think their fortunes will suddenly change just because they have in the past three seasons. In 2007, the Chargers were 5-5 and finished 11-5. In 2008, they were 4-8 and finished 8-8. Last season, they were 2-3 and finished 13-3.

There hasn’t been any sign from this team that it is ready to finish games. The hole is getting deep. If San Diego wins two-thirds of its remaining games, it will still only be 8-8. With Kansas City sitting at 4-2 (including a win over the Chargers), it is safe to say the Chargers' string of four straight AFC West championship is in jeopardy if the turnaround isn’t swift and emphatic.

The pall over the locker room Sunday seemed to suggest the team understands.

“It’s on us, the players,” Weddle said. “The coaches are doing a great job. It’s us who keep making the same mistakes.”

What is maddening to the Chargers is they know they are close to being a dominant team. The Chargers entered the game ranked No. 1 in the NFL on offense and on defense. Once again, they played well on both sides of the ball.

New England had only 179 total yards. San Diego harassed Patriots quarterback Tom Brady all game. He was never comfortable. The Chargers, who outgained their first six opponents by nearly 1,100 yards, had 363 yards of offense Sunday.

The problems? The same old things.

The Chargers committed four turnovers. Two of Sunday’s giveaways were head-scratchers. Rookie Richard Goodman made a nice 25-yard catch (his first in the NFL). However, after going down untouched, he simply left the ball on the field, thinking the play was over. New England recovered. Then, fullback Jacob Hester let a backfield pass from Philip Rivers bounce, thinking the play was dead. New England picked it up and returned it deep into San Diego territory.

Speaking of playing dead, the San Diego special teams had its usual assortment of disasters, including a failed onside kick and long punt return allowed. San Diego saved the worst special-teams mistake for last.

After the Chargers scrambled back into the game by outscoring New England 17-3 in the fourth quarter, they had a chance to tie the score with a 45-yard field goal in the final seconds. But they committed a false start, forcing new kicker Kris Brown -- the replacement for the injured Nate Kaeding -- to attempt a 50-yarder. He hit the upright.

And so continued the Chargers’ stunning self-destruction.

“I just don’t think we gave ourselves a chance,” San Diego coach Norv Turner said.

It’s starting to look like the Chargers are wondering when they’ll ever give themselves a chance to win a game.

The following are other key aspects of Sunday’s game:

Falling behind in the AFC West: The Chargers now have two teams to climb above in the AFC West if they want to win their fifth straight division championship.

While the Chargers are stumbling, the Chiefs continue to make strides. Kansas City, which has a very manageable remaining schedule, got back in the win column Sunday with a 22-point victory over the Jaguars. The Chargers also have to worry about catching Oakland. The Raiders had their best game in eight years, embarrassing the host Broncos 59-14. The Raiders, who beat San Diego two weeks ago, are 3-4.

“We know we dug a hole,” Weddle said. “We have to find a way to get out of it.”

Defense stars: Teams that hold New England to 179 yards of offense and Brady to 159 yards passing usually win. The Chargers were terrific on defense.

The defense was playing in stressful situations because of the fumbles and special-teams mistakes. But make no mistake, Ron Rivera’s crew played wining football Sunday. Brady was pressured all game. San Diego, which has 25 sacks, had four Sunday. Newcomer Antwan Barnes had two sacks and he is giving the team a pass-rushing burst at the position that soon-to-be former Charger Shawne Merriman once dominated from in San Diego.

Gates steps up: San Diego tight end Antonio Gates deserved to leave the stadium a winner Sunday.

Gates didn’t practice all week because of a toe injury. But with starting receivers Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee out with hamstring injuries, Gates willed himself onto the field.

Gates was clearly not himself. He was used mostly as a decoy in the first half when the Chargers were sputtering on offense. But he took over in the fourth quarter, when he had all four of his catches, including a touchdown.

Gates was limping noticeably in the locker room as he headed to the training room. This player is a superstar and his toughness can never be denied.