SAN DIEGO — Mike Charles has been to the playoffs before, with the Miami Dolphins. He was hoping to go again, with the San Diego Chargers.
Charles, starting nose tackle acquired on waviers from Tampa Bay during training camp, is one of the defensive additions that have helped the Chargers make their first serious playoff run since 1982.
But as he wearily walked off the field Sunday, the last man to head to the locker room after the Chargers lost their fifth consecutive game, 20-7, to the Indianapolis Colts, he sensed that possibility was gone.
"I don't know how we can come out and play like this when the game means so much," Charles said. "I've been on playoff teams before at Miami and as the season got near the end the team got hungrier. I don't know what has happened to us. We're not playing that way.
"If we beat Denver next week, maybe we can still get in on the mathematics."
But few Chargers sounded as if that is much of a possibility, starting with Coach Al Saunders.
He spoke as if his team will finish the regular season in Denver Sunday playing for nothing more than pride.
"This was a game we had to win to have an opportunity to play next week for a spot in the playoffs," Saunders said. "We were unable to win, and that was a disappointment to all of us.
"The important thing is to pick up our depressed feelings, regroup and head into the game against Denver with pride and play the best game possible."
Informed later that despite his gloomly outlook, the Chargers still have a mathematical chance to make the playoff as a wild-card team, Saunders managed a weak smile and quipped: "Must be new math."
Not quite. But it would take a series of events, starting with Chargers' victory against the Broncos, who defeated San Diego, 31-17, three weeks ago in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
After that it gets quite involved. The Broncos (9-4-1) are the only team that has clinched a spot in the playoffs. One scenario for the Chargers (8-6) to make the playoffs would be for Houston, Miami and Pittsburgh to all finish 8-7.
That would require Houston to lose to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to lose to Cleveland Sunday. Miami would have to lose to New England next Monday night.
As for the Colts (8-6), they can clinch the AFC East and their first playoff appearance since 1977 by beating Tampa Bay Sunday.
There are other possibilities that could involve ties but because the Chargers lost to Houston and Pittsburgh in their previous two games, that scenerio offered San Diego its best chance of reaching the playoffs.
"Strange things have happened in this league," defensive end Lee Williams said. "You never know. We can't play like it's over."
But the Chargers know inside that it has been their own troubles that have led to the five-game losing streak. It seems long ago that the Chargers won eight games in a row and had the best record in the National League at 8-1.
"We had the opportunities earlier," cornerback Gil Byrd said. "For five weeks, we've been saying one more win, just one more win. And we haven't got it. Now it's down to this, and we have no one to blame but ourselves."
What might have made this loss so frustrating is that the Chargers had plenty of opportunities to turn the game around.
Three times the Colts fumbled, but not once did the Chargers recover, despite having good opportunities each time.
The last fumble was reminiscent of how the Chargers helped beat the Colts, 16-13, six weeks ago in Eric Dickerson's Indianapolis debut. In that game, Dickerson fumbled at the San Diego one-yard line and the Chargers turned around and marched for a victory on a 39-yard field goal by Vince Abbott.
This time, Dickerson was charging toward the left side when he was hit and fumbled. Byrd had a chance to recover the ball but knocked it out of bounds instead at the San Diego 43 with about six minutes to play and the Colts leading, 13-7.
"I was trying to make something happen," Byrd said. "I wanted to scoop it up and go. Instead I knocked it around."
Dickerson, held in check for most of the game, then busted lose on the Colts' next possession for a 53-yard run that set up the Colts' second touchdown. Dickerson was held to 62 yards in 22 carries before that gain. Albert Bentley ran three yards for the clinching touchdown with 1:53 to play.
"That pretty much did it," Charles said. "We held him the whole game, but he got away that one time and, that was all it took."