SAN DIEGO — Mike Charles has been to the National Football League playoffs before as a member of the Miami Dolphins. He had been hoping to go again, this time with the Chargers.
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, this time to the Indianapolis Colts, 20-7, he sensed that possibility had more than slipped away. It was, for all but the dreamers, gone.
"I've been on playoff teams before at Miami and as the season got near the end, the team got hungrier. We're not playing that way," Charles said. "This is just a devastating loss. We really needed this game. I can't understand how we played the way we played when the game means so much."
Charles, the starting nose tackle acquired on waviers from Tampa Bay during training camp, is one of the recent defensive additions who have helped the Chargers make their first serious playoff run since 1982. Now he is watching those chances crumble in a losing streak that has the Charger players and coaches fumbling for answers, and hanging on calculations.
"Next week, if we beat Denver," Charles said, "maybe we can still get in through numbers--the mathematics."
But few Chargers sounded as if that was much of a possibility, starting with Coach Al Saunders. His initial postgame comments were spoken as if his team would finish the regular season Sunday in Denver playing with little more than respect at stake.
"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 had a mathematical chance of making the playoff as a wild-card team, Saunders managed a weak smile and quiped: "Must be new math."
Not quite. But it does get quite involved. The simpliest scenario would take a series of events that rest on the Chargers (8-6) beating the Broncos. Denver (9-4-1), which defeated the Chargers, 31-17, three weeks ago in San Diego, already has clinched at least a wild-card berth.
Houston, Miami and Pittsburgh would then all have to finish 8-7.
That would require Pittsburgh to lose to Cleveland Saturday, Houston to lose to Cincinnati Sunday and Miami would have to lose to New England next Monday night.
As for the Colts (8-6), they can clinch the AFC East title and their first playoff appearance since 1977 by beating Tampa Bay Sunday.
There are other possibilities that would involve ties, but because the Chargers lost to Houston and Pittsburgh in their previous two games, that scenario 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 all around the Chargers' locker room there was a realization that the playoffs--which once seemed just one tempting victory away--were lost in a lethargic game against the Colts, a team the Chargers had beaten, 16-13, six weeks ago at Indianapolis. That victory was the seventh in an eight-game streak that led the Chargers to an 8-1 start, which tied San Francisco and Washington for the best record in the NFL.
Those days seem long ago, as are the sellout crowds at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium that cheered the Chargers through that streak. Sunday's attendance of 46,211, which did not include 8,396 no-shows, was the smallest home crowd of the season.
"This is a definite heartbreaker," cornerback Gill Byrd said. "The last three we said, 'This is a must game; this is a must game.' But due to what was happening to other teams it really wasn't. But this one was. The first really must game. And we didn't rise to the occasion."
What made this loss so frustrating was 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 Chargers did score first, taking the opening kickoff and driving 74 yards in 13 plays for a touchdown. Dan Fouts took it over on a quarterback sneak on fourth and goal from the Indianapolis one-yard line.
Indianapolis tied the score, 7-7, five minutes later when Jack Trudeau, starting at quarterback in place of injured Gary Hogeboom (shoulder), completed a 42-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Bill Brooks. It was the Colts' first touchdown in five quarters.
Cornerback Elvis Patterson was closest to Brooks, but Saunders said the play was the result of a coverage mistake by strong safety Martin Bayless. Neither Bayless nor Paterson would comment after the game, but Indianapolis Coach Ron Meyer agreed with Saunders.
"A fake to Eric (Dickerson) made the safety bite, and that's what got Billy free," he said.