HOUSTON — That noise you heard around noon Sunday was the San Diego Chargers completing a three-week fall that has taken them past fame, past mediocrity and head-first past a must-win situation.
It was the scraping of a chin on what sounds like rock bottom.
The Chargers lost to the Houston Oilers, 33-18, in a 3 1/2-hour game that was exactly that close, and exactly that long.
The Chargers fumbled (four times), bumbled (75 yards in penalties) and crumbled (10 times in Oiler territory, 2 touchdowns) to their worst showing in a big game since back when they played big games (circa 1981).
They fell behind 20-0, and somehow at halftime trailed 20-5.
After a rousing locker-room speech, they came out and gave up the ball on four downs, two of which involved bad passes by Dan Fouts. The Oilers drove 62 yards in 8 plays and scored to make it 27-5, and that was the game.
The Chargers (8-4) have lost three straight by a combined score of 98-38. The disbelief that lived with them during their 8-1 start has returned, wearing a coat of a different color.
Can anyone believe they are this bad?
"I've never been through anything quite like this," Fouts said. "They executed, we didn't . . . oh, we just didn't play worth a damn."
With their third straight loss and Denver's win over New England, the Chargers have fallen into second place in the AFC West for the first time since the strike, a half-game behind the Broncos.
The Chargers still have the second-best record in the AFC, but are just one game ahead of five other teams, which could grow to six if the New York Jets beat Miami tonight. Throw the East and Central winners out of that group and you have the Chargers in at least a four-team fight for two wild-card spots.
All of this means they must win their next two home games against Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, both 7-5.
Yes, they have one more game. It's in Denver; last week, the Broncos defeated the Chargers, 31-17, in San Diego.
"I'm not going to say we have to win both of our home games, that's been our problem," nose tackle Chuck Ehin said. "This team has been looking too far ahead. We got off to the good start and all it's been since then is 'Super Bowl this, playoff that.'
"It's nice to say it. But then you have people waiting around for something to happen. And that's not right. We still have to play. We have to make things happen."
Remember last week when Vencie Glenn's interception gave the Chargers the early edge and they immediately blew it? Happened again.
On the game's second play, Warren Moon threw a pass directly into the hands of Glenn, who ran it 15 yards to the Houston 30. It was if Moon was saying, here, take your best shot.
The Chargers did. Three plays later Fouts completed a quick pass to Gary Anderson for 14 yards to the Oiler 10--but it was called back because wide receiver Wes Chandler was penalized for motion.
On the very next play, Fouts was sacked by blitzing safety Jeff Bostic and fumbled. Safety Jeff Donaldson tipped the ball once, linebacker Robert Lyles picked it up and went 55 yards for the game's first score.
"I could have caught him if he had 80 more yards to go," Charger end Kellen Winslow said.
Later, the Chargers got the ball on their 30 and Fouts passed 16 yards to Chandler, who fumbled.
Three minutes later, Houston's Tony Zendejas kicked a 48-yard field goal and the rout was on.
"It's like last week," Glenn said. "I say 'Hey, we're rolling' and then, boom , it backfires."
The remaining 19 minutes of the first half went like this:
--Fouts, who was 16 of 33 for 196 yards, threw 7 bad passes, including one that would have been intercepted except as safety Domingo Bryant caught the ball, he went out of bounds.
--Charger receivers dropped three passes, two by Anderson, one by Chandler. --The Charger defense allowed an 80-yard Oiler drive, featuring 7 running plays that gained average of 7 yards per play. The drive ended with a four-yard touchdown run by Allan Pinkett, his first touchdown since last Dec. 14.
After taking all those shots, the half ended with a self-imposed blow to the Charger offense's confidence. With seven seconds and one timeout left, on third and goal from the Oiler five-yard-line, after the offense finally put together a drive that traveled more than nine yards (69 yards), Charger Coach Al Saunders pulled out the offense. In came the field-goal team, and Vince Abbott kicked a 27-yarder to make it 20-5 at halftime.
Isn't seven seconds enough time to try for a touchdown?
Fouts: "I always think it's enough. I was surprised to see the field-goal team come out. But it's not my decision."
Saunders: "The feeling was, we at least need eight seconds. And we needed the three points. If we went for a touchdown and something went wrong, we would have gone in down 18 points. And we were getting the ball back to start the second half anyway."