SAN DIEGO — The Chargers went on strike 30 minutes too soon Sunday, but we've seen this act before, of course.
For some reason, the unofficial Charger game plan has always been to score like the dickens, stop, say a few prayers and hope the opposition drops the winning touchdown pass. Sunday, the Chargers scored like the dickens, stopped, said a prayer and watched St. Louis Cardinals running back Earl Ferrell drop the winning touchdown pass.
No matter that their fans booed and threw french fries at them, a win is a win is a win. And, in a jubilant locker room, the Chargers celebrated a 28-24 victory.
"It's the first time I've ever won a game and been booed," cornerback Danny Walters said. "In a way, I feel like we lost."
The Chargers led, 28-0, at halftime. Lionel James ran a punt back 81 yards, and then linebacker Billy Ray Smith scooped up a fumbled snap to set up Gary Anderson's 5-yard scoring run, in the first 5 minutes 24 seconds.
Later, quarterback Dan Fouts lobbed a touchdown pass of 26 yards to Wes Chandler, and Smith set up another score when he intercepted a Neil Lomax pass. James scored the final Charger touchdown on a 7-yard run, and you had your blowout.
Or did you. The Chargers took the second-half kickoff, went 71 yards to the Cardinal 9 and stopped.
Anderson fumbled Fouts' pitchout, and the Cardinals recovered--literally and figuratively.
Lomax, who completed 32 of 61 passes for 457 yards, led the Cardinals to scores on four of their next five possessions, and suddenly the Chargers' lead was down to four with 1:48 left. The Chargers had to punt and, with time running out, the Cardinals had the ball 32 yards from the goal line.
Ferrell caught a swing pass and rambled to the five-yard line.
Three incompletes later, it was fourth and goal from the five with 20 seconds remaining.
Lomax took his final snap and stepped to the right, and Ferrell was wide open.
"As soon as I saw the coverage and Earl in the flat," Lomax said, "I told myself, 'Six points.' "
Instead, as he was about to step into the end zone, Ferrell dropped the ball, and the Cardinals, who last week scored three touchdowns in the final 1:58 to beat Dallas, fell to 1-1. The Chargers also are 1-1.
It was clear the game changed when Anderson fumbled Fouts' pitchout early in the second half.
"If we score on that drive, it's 35-0 and over," Fouts said.
Instead, the Cardinals got hot, for many reasons. Charger defensive coordinator Ron Lynn said he was so concerned about St. Louis' pass offense, that he wanted his linebackers to drop back into coverage instead of blitzing. Of course, what this did was eliminate the Charger pass rush.
With a lot of time to stand and throw, Lomax stood and threw completions. An 8-yard touchdown pass to Roy Green (7 catches, 139 yards) made it 28-7. The next three Charger possessions ended in a dropped pass, a fumbled snap that Fouts recovered and an incomplete pass to James, who was wide open for a touchdown but mistimed his jump and couldn't reach the ball.
The results for St. Louis were a 38-yard Jim Gallery field goal (he had two costly misses earlier in the game), a 22-yard touchdown pass from Lomax to tight end Jay Novacek and a 17-yard Lomax touchdown pass to running back Stump Mitchell, who bowled past Bayless and into the end zone. And it was 28-24.
Heaven knows, it could have been worse. After Novacek's touchdown made it 28-17, Anderson fumbled the ensuing kickoff, St. Louis recovering. Fortunately for the Chargers, a Cardinal player had been offside on the kickoff. St. Louis had to re-kick, and Saunders--who says Anderson was getting a little winded--put James back deep instead.
Later, after Mitchell's touchdown made it 28-24, the Chargers were expecting an onside kick. Instead, Gallery booted it deep. Neither Anderson nor James could run back quickly enough to catch it, and the ball rolled free at the five yard-line. Anderson managed to fall on it, but the Chargers had to punt soon thereafter, setting up St. Louis' final drive.
Lynn and his Charger secondary members did a lot of head-shaking afterward.
"Seems like this happens all the time here, the blown leads," safety Vencie Glenn said. "I think it was just a lack of intensity."
Walters said: "We stunk on defense in the second half. We just stunk."
Lynn said: "Over the course of the years, the Chargers have had maybe 30 of these come-from-behind jobs. . . . There's a period in these kinds of games when you wonder why you do this job, as you sit there and see your hair falling out in front of you."