SAN DIEGO — You are the Chargers, and the glass slipper is killing you.
It is the Monday after your second straight loss, which came after eight straight victories and three national cable television special reports and one national magazine story and midweek visits by Pete Axthelm and Ahmad Rashad.
The two losses came against two of only three playoff-caliber teams you have faced thus far--Seattle and Denver. You claim that's all they were, just two losses , yet you walk in Monday still looking for your teeth.
You lost to Denver Sunday, 31-17. You lost to Seattle last week, 34-3.
Both teams happen to be in your division, which makes you a first-place team chasing the two guys behind you.
Both teams also figure to make the playoffs, which means one of them will be a wild-card team, which means if you are the other wild-card team, guess what happens in the first round?
Your next four games, beginning at Houston Sunday, are all against playoff-contending teams, against teams that cannot afford for a second to let you win.
It's Monday and you must walk to work because the bandwagon is in the garage, something about the wheels coming off and nobody willing to pay the repair bill.
What do you do?
You put on your game face.
"This week we have gotten ourselves into a must-win situation," said Charger Coach Al Saunders. 'We must defeat Houston, to help our confidence, our direction, our standings in the playoffs in relation to the other two teams in our division."
You say you aren't as bad as you look.
"After viewing the Denver films, in actuality, our play was exemplary," Saunders said. "We played hard. We gave a great physical effort. But sometimes that's not enough to win against outstanding teams like Denver."
You say football is a game of inches.
"Against Denver, it could have been a play here, a play there," Saunders said. "We had some real bright spots in terms of being a shade away from winning. Offensively, we were a couple of plays from having a great game. The game was not out of reach by any means."
You finally drop all pretenses. You rationalize.
"We won eight games, we won them--nobody can take that away from us," Saunders said. "If we had to go today, we would have the best record in the AFC. If we play today, we are a playoff team."
Are the Chargers a playoff team? Saunders wasn't saying.
Defensive coordinator Ron Lynn would only say that the time to prove it is running out.
"We could be. We'll know for sure after the next 27 days," Lynn said. "We have just four games left, and all have become important. I would hope that some guys are getting a little peeved. I don't know if we need to panic, but we do need to make some drastic decisions over these next four games."
He wasn't talking about his defense, but he could have been. When looking for an issue or explanation in all this, stop here.
After all, against Denver, Dan Fouts threw for 322 yards. The rushing attack gained 6.6 yards per carry, stunted only because the team trailed so quickly, it could afford to run only 10 times.
The defense--well, it allowed Denver 522 total yards, meaning in two weeks it has allowed 1,018 yards. This has dropped the Charger defense to 18th overall in the NFL.
It has fallen even further in a more important category: stopping opponents when it has to. Two weeks ago, the Chargers led the league by allowing opponents successful conversions on just 29% of third-down plays. In the past two Sundays, they have allowed conversions on 66% of third-down plays (20 of 30).
"Seattle had a lot of third-and-ones, and that's one thing, but then Denver had a lot of third-and-fives, sixes, sevens," Lynn lamented. "And we still couldn't stop them. I don't know what it is. We've got to get off of that. We've got to get a sack, an interception, just stop somebody.
"We've got to scratch or claw or bite or something. I don't know, maybe we can't stand prosperity."
Or long passes. Denver's John Elway threw for a season-high 347 yards, including three for more than 30 yards. Elvis Patterson, for one, was beaten deep twice within a span of six minutes in the first half. There was a 52-yard pass to Mark Jackson, which led to a touchdown and a 46-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Nattiel.
Lynn, however, would not completely blame Patterson. And he would not promise any personnel changes.
"It wasn't like Elvis was beaten by yards on either one," Lynn said. "He didn't see the ball on the Jackson pass, and just misplayed the other one. He was in good position for both.
"I don't see us making wholesale changes. Maybe just an adjustment here or there. Maybe we have overloaded a couple of guys."
Lynn shrugged. "We got what we got. We will make do with what we have. It's up to us coaches to give them the best chance they have to win."
If there are any new faces in the secondary, they probably will be Lou Brock or Nelson Jones, cornerbacks eligible to come off the injured reserve list.
There were no serious injuries in the Denver game. With 6:04 remaining in the second period, on a pass out of the end zone, quarterback Dan Fouts was hammered in the backfield, and he suffered a bruised shoulder. According to Coach Al Saunders, Fouts may miss Wednesday's first pads practice, but should be fine. "His shoulder is sore, we'll just have to see," Saunders said. Linebacker Billy Ray Smith was kicked in the back on the first play of Sunday's game, but never came out. The bruise he suffered may slow him a bit, but should not keep him out. . . . The most immediate personnel change resulting from Sunday's game may be at right tackle, where Broderick Thompson started in place of sore-wristed Gary Kowalski. According to Saunders, "(Thompson) played well. He gives us more dimensions in our running game. He did a good job of pass protection. We won't know about that situation until the middle of the week."