SAN DIEGO — The Chargers referred to last year's season finale in Kansas City as a "bus game."
They wanted to get the game over with so they could take the bus to the airport and go home.
San Diego was 8-7 and going home for the holidays when it played the Chiefs. At halftime, the Chargers trailed, 35-6. After a halftime tongue-lashing by Coach Don Coryell, they just fell short, 38-34.
Today, the Chargers (4-11) face the Cleveland Browns in their season finale in Cleveland Stadium at 10 a.m.
With a victory, the Browns (11-4) would become the first Cleveland team to win 12 games in the regular season. They clinched the AFC Central Division title with a 34-3 victory over Cincinnati last week and gained the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs when Seattle beat Denver Saturday.
The Chargers will be playing out the schedule a long way from home in cold weather.
Could this be another "bus game"?
Charger Coach Al Saunders spent the past week preparing his team to avoid that pitfall.
"In past seasons, the weather was all anyone talked about," said Saunders, who replaced Coryell midway through this season. "Any time you play in a foreign environment, there is a potential to overreact. . . .
"Everything has to be brought out on a conscious level. Bring it to a conscious level and go from there. Part of preparing a team is preparing them physically, mentally and emotionally. We have a chance this week to improve our football team in an area we have not been strong in."
That is, winning back East and winning on the road. The Chargers are 0-2 in the East and 2-5 on the road this season.
The Browns are 5-2 at home. Overall, Cleveland has four won straight, seven out of their last eight, and seven games by six points or less.
"Our players have developed an expectation of success," Brown Coach Marty Schottenheimer said.
The Browns haven't always won pretty, but they have won.
"The last time I checked, you didn't get any bonus points for being artistic," Schottenheimer said. "You make the playoffs by winning, not by how much you win by. We just find ways to win. Our players are resourceful."
And confident. They are talking about going to the Super Bowl.
"We're not satisfied with just winning the division," quarterback Bernie Kosar said. "It's time to take the next step."
In the past six games, Kosar has averaged 277 yards passing. He ranks second in the National Football League with 3,596 yards passing, behind Dan Marino of Miami with 4,480.
"We've opened it up more over the last six weeks," Kosar said. "It's helped us in the way we've moved the football."
After two impressive performances against lackluster offenses, the Chargers lost to Seattle last week, 34-24.
"I was disappointed that we allowed the big play," Saunders said. "Two communication problems resulted in touchdowns and I don't anticipate that problem occurring again."
Dan Fouts has completed 66 of 99 passes (67%) for 777 yards in the last three weeks implementing Saunders' ball-control offense. Tight end Kellen Winslow caught a season-high 8 passes against Seattle and has caught 42 of his 61 passes in the last eight games.
"If Cincinnati doesn't have the best offense in the league," Schottenheimer said, "then San Diego may have. You know my regard for Dan Fouts. When he's healthy, he's the most valuable player in the league."
Former San Diego defensive coordinator Dave Adolph has spent the week informing his defense about the Charger offense.
"Dave has obviously given us some information regarding personnel," Schottenheimer said. "But we haven't made any attempt to glean what Al (Saunders) is doing."
Since Saunders replaced Coryell, the Chargers are 3-4, which includes a one-point loss to Kansas City, a three-point loss to Dallas and a six-point overtime loss to the Raiders.
"In all honesty," Saunders said, "I haven't really had time to reflect on the last seven weeks. It's been a very enjoyable time for me. I laid a positive foundation for the future."