HOUSTON — That noise you heard around noon Sunday, it came out of southern Texas. It was the Chargers. It was the NFL's surprise team completing a three-week fall that has taken it past fame, past mediocrity.
It was the scraping of a chin on what looks like, and 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), bumbled (75 yards in penalties) and crumbled (10 times in Oiler territory, two touchdowns) to their worst showing in a big game since back when they played big games (circa 1982).
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 Dan Fouts' passes. The Oilers drove 62 yards in eight plays and scored to make it 27-5, and ballgame.
The Chargers have three straight losses 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," said Fouts, who has been playing for, what, 15 years? "They executed, we didn't. . . . Oh, we just didn't play worth a damn."
He was asked whether the team can win another game this season playing like this? He paused.
That would put a tiny scratch in their playoff hopes. With their third straight loss and Denver's 31-20 victory over New England, the Chargers have fallen into second place in the AFC West for the first time since the strike, one-half game behind the Broncos.
At 8-4, they still have the second-best record in the AFC, but now they are just one game ahead of five other teams, a list that could grow to six with a New York Jet victory over 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.
This means they must win both of their next two home games, which won't be easy, considering the opponents are Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, both 7-5.
Then they have a game in Denver. Last week, the Broncos defeated the Chargers, 31-17, in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
"I'm not going to say we have to win both of our home games, that's been our problem," said Chuck Ehin, nose tackle. "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."
Ehin was one of the few saying much. In a half-filled Astrodome, the Chargers appeared to play with all the emotion of an air conditioner, and then afterward appeared embarrassed.
Safety Martin Bayless (good talker): "I was always told, if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. I'm saying nothing."
Defensive end Terry Unrein (marvelous talker): "I'm sorry, I've got nothing to say."
Nosetackle Mike Charles (best talker in history of spoken word): "Nothing personal, I just can't say anything about this."
That's what happens when your mouth is agape after the game's first five minutes, which is as far as the Chargers have been getting lately.
Remember last week when Vencie Glenn's interception gave the Chargers the early edge and then they immediately blew it? Happened again.
On the game's second play, Warren Moon threw a pass directly into the hands of safety Glenn, who ran it 15 yards to the Houston 30. It was as if Moon were saying, here, take your best shot.
The Chargers did. Three plays later Fouts completed a quick pass to running back 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 next play, Fouts was creamed in the backfield by blitzing safety Jeff Bostic, and fumbled.
The ball bounced behind his prone body, safety Jeff Donaldson tipped it once, linebacker Robert Lyles picked it up and there was no catching him. He went 55 yards for the game's first score.
"I could have caught him," Charger end Kellen Winslow said. "If he had 80 more yards to go."
"My fault," said Fouts, who said he should have called an audible to Anderson, who could have moved over to block Bostic. "I should have anticipated it and called a blitz adjustment. I've got to read that defense better. It was my responsibility. I should have anticipated."
But who could have anticipated what happened then?
After each stalled on its next possession, the Chargers got the ball on their 30 and Fouts completed a 16-yard pass to Chandler. But Chandler, who took a good hit from linebacker John Grimsley, fumbled.
Three minutes later, Houston's Tony Zendejas kicked a 48-yard field goal and the rout was on.