SAN DIEGO — This game once had a chance to be something. Now it can best be understood through the simple principles of mud wrestling.
Two teams, once clean, now nearly indistinguishable, slipping and slopping over each other to find their feet.
The Chargers and Indianapolis Colts will get together today at 1 p.m. at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium to decide whose season gets poleaxed quicker.
If the AFC West Chargers (8-5) lose, it would take a minor act from on high to get them into the playoffs. If the AFC East Colts (7-6) lose, same thing. In fact, if they lose and three other teams win today, they're finished.
If the Chargers win, nothing is assured, except that a victory against Denver next week would mean at least a wild-card spot, possibly a division title. If the Colts win, they still must beat Tampa Bay next week, and even that might not cinch a playoff spot.
Once, as recently as a month ago, both teams were alone in first place in their divisions. This game had beauty, charm and all kinds of Cinderella parallels.
Now it doesn't have enough power to lift a TV blackout. You can't watch it from home around San Diego, and perhaps it's just as well. Not a whole lot can be gained by anybody here, but a whole lot can be lost.
Charger defensive tackle Joe Phillips: "You lose four in a row like we have, it really screws up your pride. For once, we don't leave the game saying, 'If only we would have . . .' "
Indianapolis Coach Ron Meyer: "This season has been a real roller coaster for us. I'll be interested to see how we react."
For all of their ability and college-like inspiration, the word is that the Indianapolis Colts have no idea how to win; only five of their players have ever even been involved in winning seasons.
They proved that last week against division rival and contender Buffalo in a game that essentially would have assured the Colts a playoff berth. They were coming off back-to-back victories over contenders Houston (51-27) and Cleveland (9-7). The second-place Bills came to the Hoosier Dome for probably the biggest game in the history of the Indianapolis franchise.
And the Colts couldn't score a touchdown. Eric Dickerson, who returns to Southern California today for the first time since being traded from the Rams two months ago, couldn't break the 20-yard mark (19 yards in 11 carries). On third down, the offense couldn't get a first down (0 for 10).
The defense recorded no sacks and no interceptions and allowed 25 first downs.
The biggest game in the history of the franchise, and the Colts lost, 27-3.
"It was a disaster," Meyer said. "It was a stinging, stunning defeat."
That game was indicative of the problems of a team that, for all of the linebackers who have hurt themselves trying to tackle Eric Dickerson, has had about as much offense as the Chargers.
The Colts have gone eight quarters without an offensive touchdown, their longest drought in five years. In four games this year, they have failed to score touchdowns, matching a team record.
"I'm surprised the Buffalo game wasn't more of a landslide, considering our offense was so inadequate," Meyer said.
Don't blame Dickerson, although in the last two weeks (Buffalo, Cleveland), he has rushed for only 117 total yards. Against the Bills, he ran the ball six times in the first half and then disappeared behind a forced passing game that looked forced. Backup quarterback Jack Trudeau, who will play today despite a deep hip bruise, was just 6 of 15 for 78 yards. Even though regular starter Gary Hogeboom (sore shoulder) can't throw a ball more than 10 yards, some wonder if he still wouldn't be better.
"Having Eric Dickerson is great, but he's not Superman and does not profess to be," Meyer said. "We have to surround him with a more balanced attack. This week we will try desperately to do that."
The Colts didn't have that balanced offense last time they met the Chargers Nov. 8 and didn't really need it. Despite losing, 16-13, the Colts outgained the Chargers 303 yards to 296, and held the ball for 15 more minutes. This was with Dickerson and Albert Bentley combining for 191 yards. Trudeau passed for only 112.
The only reason the Colts lost was that Dickerson fumbled one yard short of a touchdown with 4:06 left, and the Chargers followed with their best drive of the day (59 yards) to set up Vince Abbott's game-winning 39-yard field goal.
"So we expect to see more of the same thing," said Ron Lynn, Charger defensive coordinator. "We expect to see Dickerson carry the ball a whole bunch of times, whatever he carried the first time (35 carries, 138 yards) plus some."
The Chargers' confidence rests in that they think they proved they can stop Dickerson or, at least, stop him so that one fumble can ruin the game.
"We know we can stop him. He's not immortal," nose tackle Chuck Ehin said. "You can tell from his past performances, he can only go as good as his line goes. He can widen holes, but he can't make holes."