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 cold wind gusts in the 30 m.p.h. range, after four lost fumbles and three missed field goals and a touchdown scratched because of a penalty, Saunders and his Chargers walked away from the game Sunday on speaking terms with the end of their rope.
They had received their fourth-straight loss, 20-16, to the Pittsburgh Steelers, in a game they could have won, should have won, and needed to win.
"This one is kind of devastating," said nose tackle Mike Charles, who led a good defense with three tackles and a forced fumble. "This one had me in tears."
Playing in temperatures with a wind-chill factor in the 30s, they outmuscled the Steelers 435 total 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 five times.
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, during certain situations the Chargers used just three defensive backs. For the first time in his career, they turned safety Martin Bayless into an inside linebacker.
They tried almost everything, and almost everything worked. And yet, none of it got the job done.
"Sure, we can say we played hard, but playing hard just gets you close," Bayless said. "Playing hard don't get it."
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.
"It's self-explanatory," Bayless said. "Win two games or go home. Can't go 1-1. Can't go 0-2. Got to have both. It ain't too hard to figure out. There are no more short cuts."
This reminder: On Nov. 8, the Chargers needed a goal-line fumble by Eric Dickerson to win in Indianapolis, 16-13. Three weeks later, Denver smashed the Chargers, 31-17, at San Diego.
And to think, just a month ago this team would sit up late talking about becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl on their home field. Maybe they talked too much.
"I don't know if we realized how close we were, and how hard it is to make the playoffs," said Charles, pleadingly. "I've been there, I know how it feels. You don't make the playoffs, man, nobody remembers you.
"Man, people work their whole career and don't make the playoffs. That's all that counts, the playoffs. Nothing else means nothing. I don't care how much you think you've succeeded, you're nothing without the playoffs."
And you're nothing if you can't make something out of what the Chargers were given Sunday.
They took an early 7-0 lead on the third blocked-punt-for-touchdown in franchise history. Vencie Glenn blocked Harry Newsome's kick 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 outgained the Steelers, 136-31.
"Like always, I think we have the momentum, I think we are ignited," Glenn said.
But midway through the second quarter, after Lionel James fumbled a bouncing punt, the Steelers drove 39 yards in 4 plays for a touchdown on Frank Pollard's 8-yard run. After an extra point that made it 9-7, 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 was short, the Steelers drove 69 yards on 5 plays to score, this time on Malone's seven-yard scramble. That made it 14-9 and Malone opened Pittsburgh's next drive with a 28-yard bootleg that led to a field goal to make it 17-9 and the game.
Malone was only 14 of 26 for 164 yards, but didn't need to rely on passing. He gained 34 yards in 5 carries, more than all but one Charger rusher. It was that kind of day.
"This leaves us at the point where everybody has to be pulling their hole card," linebacker Chip Banks said. "Everybody has to be looking around saying, 'Damn, what can I do that I'm not doing.' "
Abbott is one of those people, but he didn't hang around long enough after Sunday's game to look around. His three misses (42, 46, 48 yards) were all within his range, and each led to Pittsburgh scores. Yet, he left early and refused to talk to reporters.