SEATTLE — Reality barged in on the Chargers Sunday, pulling them upright, shaking them by the lapels, demanding to know what they and the impossible have been doing together for the last eight weeks.
The Seattle Seahawks kicked the Chargers into last season, defeating them, 34-3, in a game that--imagine this--was not that close.
The NFL's best team at 8-1? The Chargers were outgained, 496 yards to 156. Of the Seahawks' 13 possessions, they crossed the 50-yard line 12 times.
A team with an eight-game winning streak? The Seahawks had 34 first downs, the Chargers had six . From five minutes into the second quarter until five minutes were left, they made none.
The AFC West leaders? The Chargers gained 17 yards rushing. Seahawk quarterback Dave Krieg gained more than twice that many (35) himself.
Early Sunday morning, somebody climbed to the Kingdome's third deck, draped a bed sheet across the concrete facing, and in green and yellow felt pen wrote the Chargers a little note: "Wake Up Cinderella. . . . It's Midnight And You've Missed The Ball."
Rhetoric? Or reality?
"No way anybody in here believes that," said Charger guard James FitzPatrick, looking around a locker room that appeared more angry than sullen. "Good teams are going to lose too, you know."
Explained tight end Kellen Winslow: "Does this mean we're a bad team? No. Does this mean we'll never win another game? No.
"Does this mean one team, on one given day, one time, beat our butts? Yes."
A thousand times, yes.
"Actually," explained defensive end Joe Phillips, "they beat the hell out of us."
In front of a roaring 62,444, the Seahawks beat them so bad, the most lasting memory of this day's Chargers will be one of their sidelines. With the 6:13 left in the half, after a 73-yard Seahawk touchdown drive that gave them a 17-3 lead, all the Charger defensive linemen gathered at the end of the bench.
Winslow walked by and began screaming at nose tackle Lee Williams. Line coach Gunther Cunningham stepped between them, and then began screaming at all of the linemen. He gestured, screamed some more, and then took a cup of ice and flung it down the field. However, the ice hit a police officer.
For the record, the defensive line combined for only 11 of the club's 63 tackles.
"Everybody was getting on everybody," Winslow said. "We were doing anything to get us fired up."
It failed, all of it failed. Even the fact that Charger Coach Al Saunders couldn't make up his mind about his quarterback didn't matter.
As expected, Mark Herrmann started the game for injured Dan Fouts. Herrmann had a good first half, going 9 for 13 for 101 yards, keeping the team to within 17-3. But two series into the second half, after the Seahawks had scored to make it 24-3, Fouts ran in, barely limping from pulled right calf muscle.
He lasted the final eight minutes of the third quarter, and eight more minutes of the fourth quarter before giving way to Herrmann again. Fouts ended up 2 for 6 for 15 yards with two sacks but claiming he'll be "100%" for next Sunday in San Diego against Denver.
"We brought in Dan when we thought we needed a little bit of a start," said Charger Coach Al Saunders. "Then we brought Mark back in late because we wanted to get him some experience in the two-minute drill."
The Seahawks handled both Charger quarterbacks in the best way possible. They just didn't let them touch the ball.
The Seahawk offense hogged it for 41:35 of a possible 60:00, longer than the average Sunday nap. In the entire third period, reportedly 15 minutes long, the Chargers ran just six offensive plays.
"You're kidding me, just six?" said Charger nose tackle Mike Charles. "Darn. I knew the defense was out there just about all day."
The Seahawks played like your typical AFC West favorites who had suddenly found themselves in second place behind the Chargers at 5-3, and in real danger of losing any chance for the title with a loss.
"It was the most intense we played all year," said maligned Seahawk quarterback Dave Krieg, who had one of his best games this season, completing 19 of 26 for 246 yards. "We played knowing the realization of a loss. We knew what a loss would mean."
Said receiver Steve Largent: "The significance was obvious."
Just as the Charger low point was obvious. It was the opening fumble . . . no, perhaps it was that first Seahawk touchdown . . . wait a second, it had to be the two straight Dave Krieg runs . . . oh, let's check those off and then some.
The opening kickoff. Charger Gary Anderson caught it, carried it a few yards, and then was popped by Seahawk linebackers Fredd Young and Brian Bosworth. The ball squirted out and was fallen upon by Seahawk Paul Moyer. Four plays later, on a Norm Johnson field goal, the Seahawks led 3-0.
"I don't know if that set the tone for the game or not," Saunders said. "I do know we didn't come back from it very well."