SAN DIEGO — How can an offense amass 435 yards in a game and manage to score just one touchdown?
Coach Al Saunders boiled the Chargers' plight down to basic terms Sunday after they had run their losing streak to four games with a 20-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
Said Saunders: "Take away our five turnovers and three missed field goals and it's a different football game."
No one could contest Saunders' analysis. After all, the Chargers lost by only four points.
As a matter of fact, Saunders neglected to include the Chargers' most costly error. Late in the first quarter, an offside penalty on guard Dennis McKnight wiped out Gary Anderson's touchdown run. The Chargers came away without scoring, although they did get a safety shortly afterward when nose tackle Chuck Ehin sacked Steeler quarterback Mark Malone in the end zone.
If the five point difference involved were added to the Chargers' total, they would have had enough to win.
But the point is teams with ambitions of success in the NFL playoffs don't stymie themselves by making one mistake after another. Until wide receiver Lionel James scored on a pass from quarterback Dan Fouts with 2:56 left, the Chargers had crossed the goal only on a blocked punt.
Saunders was asked how many points the Chargers' 435 yards should have been worth.
"I can't answer that question," Saunders said. "But I think it's obvious that we should have scored enough points to win."
Fouts accounted for 321 yards, and has been the losing quarterback in the last two of his 51 games of 300 or more yards passing.
Wide receiver Wes Chandler, who had game highs of 7 catches and 116 yards, said: "Everybody is in a frame of mind to see us score 40 points a game. We didn't do it."
With that, Chandler stalked out of the locker room. He referred, of course, to the Chargers' high-scoring days in Don Coryell's coaching regime, which ended in midseason last year.
In the last previous meeting between the Chargers and Steelers here two years ago, the Chargers won, 54-44.
Tight end Kellen Winslow tried to find a reason why the Chargers had been their own worst enemies.
"When you're making as many mental mistakes as we are, you have to look at yourselves," Winslow said. "You have to take stock of the way you've been playing."
Asked if these blunders could be attributed to lack of concentration, Winslow said, "Maybe it's too much concentration. It could be that sometimes our guys are trying too hard. I've seen that happen."
With the Chargers 8-5 after winning eight of their first nine games, Winslow said: "The attitude here is still positive. You don't see anybody crying or throwing helmets. If we had lost heart, my hope for the future would be a lot dimmer than it is."
Anderson, who caught 5 passes but was limited to 7 carries for 27 yards, bemoaned the Chargers' inability to take advantage of a fine effort by their offensive line.
"Those guys may have done their best job all year," Anderson said. "We can't seem to put a complete game together. We've got to make the plays and not let the other team make them."
Anderson said he had almost caught the fourth-down pass from Fouts that would have won the game with 11 seconds remaining. It was broken up by cornerback Rod Woodson in the end zone.
"There must have been seven of us going for the ball," Anderson said. "I jumped up, but Woodson knocked it away. It was just a matter of who timed his jump right."
In any case, the Chargers' playoff hopes were dealt a severe setback, and cornerback Gill Byrd summed up their situation: "The key is not to feel sorry for ourselves. If we do that, we're dead."