SAN DIEGO — After winning eight straight, including three during the strike, the San Diego Chargers are struggling.
They were whipped by the Denver Broncos, 31-17, Sunday, one week after Seattle beat them, 34-3.
That means they are a cumulative 45 points worse than their top two AFC West contenders.
"Nobody said it would be easy but this has proven to be very difficult," quarterback Dan Fouts said.
Even more difficult to watch. Destiny's darlings are falling all over their cliches. They will at least remain tied for first following Seattle's game tonight with the Raiders, yet in the last 10 quarters, their offense has scored one touchdown, and their defense has allowed 10 touchdowns.
This is not an Al Saunders-style team, unless Saunders shows up at work this morning in jeans and dirty T-shirt.
Third-down breakdowns, quarterbacks outrunning your best running backs, cornerbacks beaten by passes that travel more than half the field in the air.
The Chargers scored on the longest interception return in NFL history--103 yards by Vencie Glenn--and it meant nothing. Dan Fouts threw for more than 300 yards (322) for the 50th time in his life, and it meant nothing.
"It's just too bad we can't take care of our own business any better than that," said safety Martin Bayless.
Denver quarterback John Elway completed 21 of 32 passes for a season-high 347 yards and 3 touchdowns, and he ran for 40 more. He has 1,086 total yards in his last three games.
But the Chargers (8-3) were more inclined to blame themselves for the loss.
"We have to so some soul searching," Glenn said. "We have to start playing again. We have to try to beat somebody."
Trailing, 17-10, with 1:08 left in the first half, the Chargers drove 64 yards to the Bronco one. And they did not score. No touchdown, no field goal. No kidding.
On third-and-goal from the Bronco seven-yard-line, with 17 seconds and no Charger timeouts left, here's what happened: Charger tight end Kellen Winslow ran to the end zone, Fouts threw a ball into the end zone, and Winslow caught the ball.
But not all at the same time.
Running a simple outside pattern, Winslow leaped and seemed to catch the ball at the six-point side of the goal line. But Denver defensive backs Mike Harden and Randy Robbins were hanging on his back, and pushed him, in mid-air, back to the other side of the goal line.
Winslow landed on the one-yard line and began fighting to get across. Denver defenders Steve Wilson and Jeremiah Castille joined the fray, making it four on one, with Winslow going nowhere.
By now, there were just five seconds left and, with no timeouts, the Chargers couldn't get their field-goal unit on the field in time.
"I thought I scored," said Winslow, "but what I think doesn't matter. I was in the end zone. The only thing that could have happened was, I might stepped back to the ball and gone back over the line."
Saunders said: "We were yelling for a replay, but they were so slow to spot the ball afterward, we had to stop yelling and get our field-goal team out there, and by then it was too late. We practice that emergency field goal team thing everyday. If they had spotted the ball quicker, we might have had a chance."
Safety Mike Davis said: "We get that, it's 0-0, a new game. We needed that."
After the first two Bronco series of the second half, it was no game. Immediately after the second-half kickoff, Elway took his team 55 yards in 9 plays for a touchdown, passing 5 yards to Gene Lang for the score.
Then after the Chargers could do nothing in 8 plays, Elway took his team 80 yards in 9 plays for another touchdown, this time passing 9 yards to Van Johnson for the score to make it 31-10.
If the Seahawks win, as expected, tonight against the Raiders, the Chargers are no longer alone in first place in the AFC West.
The Chargers are just a half-game ahead of Denver (7-3-1) and two games ahead of the four 6-5 teams in the race for one of two wild-card spots.
The Chargers' four remaining games are all against playoff-contending teams, including next week's trip to Houston and a season-ending trip to Denver.