SAN DIEGO — The coach walked away from the game looking like the game. Al Saunders' sculpted blond hair was blown madly across his head and into his eyes. His white shirt was rumpled underneath a sweater. His usually smiling face was reddened and tight.
After three hours in a chilly 25 m.p.h. wind, after four lost fumbles and three missed field goals and a touchdown wiped away because of a penalty, Saunders and his San Diego Chargers walked away from the game Sunday on speaking terms with the end of their rope.
They lost their fourth straight, 20-16 to the Pittsburgh Steelers at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, in a game they could have won, should have won and probably had to win.
"This one is kind of devastating," said nose tackle Mike Charles, who led the defense with three tackles and a forced fumble. "This one had me in tears."
They out-muscled the Steelers, 435 yards to 254. They had nearly twice as many first downs (27-14). They held the ball for five more minutes. They drove the ball more than 50 yards on five different occasions.
For the first time this year, quarterback Dan Fouts operated out of the shotgun formation. He threw 52 passes, his most in three years, and completed 29, his most in two years.
For the first time this year, the Chargers used just three defensive backs during certain situations, turning safety Martin Bayless into an inside linebacker for the first time in his career.
They tried most everything, and most everything worked. And none of it worked.
And now? There's big-time, mind-bending, dream-threatening trouble.
Put it this way: If the season ended today, the Chargers (8-5) would not make the playoffs. They are one-half game behind Denver in the AFC West, and they are tied for a wild-card spot with two teams who beat them (Seattle and Pittsburgh).
The Chargers have a home game next week against Indianapolis before ending the season in Denver. They must win both games just to make the playoffs.
"You don't make the playoffs, man, nobody remembers you." Charles said.
And you're nothing if you can't make something of what the Chargers were given Sunday.
They took a 7-0 lead on the third blocked-punt-for-touchdown in franchise history. Vencie Glenn blocked it off the toe of Harry Newsome, who was kicking from the goal line, and David Brandon fell on it in the end zone.
They went ahead 9-0 at the end of the first period when nose tackle Chuck Ehin nailed Steeler quarterback Mark Malone in the end zone for safety.
At the time, the Chargers had out-gained the Steelers, 136-31.
But midway through the second quarter, after Lionel James fumbled a bouncing punt, the Steelers drove 39 yards in four plays for a touchdown on Frank Pollard's eight-yard run. That made it 9-7, at which point Vince Abbott closed the first half with a 42-yard field goal attempt that was wide left.
Then in the second half, after Abbott's 48-yard attempt that was short, the Steelers drove 69 yards on five plays to score again, this time on a seven-yard scramble by Malone. That made it 14-9, and Malone opened their next drive with a 28-yard bootleg that led to a field goal to make it 17-9.
Malone was 14 of 26 for 164 yards, but he didn't have to depend on his arm only. He gained 34 yards in 5 carries, more than all but one Charger rusher. It was that kind of day.
"Everybody has to be looking around saying, 'Damn, what can I do that I'm not doing,' " linebacker Chip Banks said.
Abbott is one of those people. His misses (42, 46 and 48 yards) were all within his range, and each led to Pittsburgh scores. He left early and refused to talk to reporters. Holder Ralf Mojsiejenko filled in the alibis.
"The wind was a big factor," Mojsiejenko said. "Vince was overcompensating for it and was hooking every ball. You knew something was wrong because he never hooks it."
More than that was wrong, starting with the turnovers. A first-quarter sampler: The Chargers drive 61 yards to the Steeler 12-yard line, and Curtis Adams fumbles.
"I just dropped the ball," Adams said. "I don't know what happened."
They get the ball back after the blocked punt and drive 67 yards to the Steeler one, where Gary Anderson scores on a dive. But it is called back because guard Dennis McKnight is offside. That's as good as a turnover, eh?
"That play cost us the game," McKnight said.
Three plays later the Chargers move back to the one, where they decide to go for the touchdown on fourth and goal. Tim Spencer appears to have stretched the ball across the end zone. But at the same time, linebacker Mike Merriweather sticks his hand underneath Spencer's arm, and he, too, fumbles.
"If he doesn't slap it, I get the ball across," said Spencer.
The Chargers' Ehin then traps Malone for that safety, taking that 9-0 lead, taking the momentum . . . but then on the ensuing free kick they fumble again.
Newsome shanked a 23-yard punt that swirled around in the wind and Hunter, who called for a fair catch, fairly never had a chance at the ball. It bounced off his arms and eventually into Merriweather's.
"It got caught up in that wind, I got my hands on it, I just didn't catch it," Hunter said.
Remember, all of this in just in the first quarter.
About that time, some of the 51,605 fans (there were 5,603 no-shows) began to leave. By the end of the game, there were few fans remaining, and the Chargers felt pronouncements of death from everywhere.