SAN DIEGO — The Chargers' prospects of making the National Football League playoffs improved ever so slightly Monday and no one had to play a game for it to happen. Given the way the Chargers have performed lately, that was probably their best chance of improving their slim playoff hopes.
The slight bit of good news came by way of a late catch by those in the NFL office who figure the myriad playoff possibilities.
After the league distributed a memo Monday morning detailing the playoff possibilities, a review showed the chain of events that would allow San Diego to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1982 had changed.
New England no longer must defeat Miami Monday night for the Chargers to earn a wild-card berth. That is because if the Chargers (8-6) and Dolphins (8-6) both finish 9-6, the Chargers would have an edge in the tie breaker based on a better record (7-6 vs. 6-6) against conference opponents.
While that might make the quest seem just that much less short of impossible, it changes little else. Pittsburgh still must lose at home to Cleveland Saturday, Houston still must lose at home to Cincinnati Sunday and the Chargers still must defeat the division-leading Broncos (9-4-1) in Denver Sunday.
The Chargers must also wait out a shoulder injury to quarterback Dan Fouts that makes his status for Sunday questionable.
Those are a lot of ifs, the only one of which the Chargers control is their game at Denver. That was the only one Coach Al Saunders wanted to discuss in the wake of his team's 20-7 loss to Indianapolis Sunday.
"The most important thing about this game is the game, not what can happen around the league," he said in his weekly news conference Monday. "It is important to our football team to win. If that comes to pass and we have success, whatever happened earlier that day or later in the day will decide our fate for the following week."
But that fate could be decided even before the Chargers get on their chartered flight for Denver Saturday afternoon. The Pittsburgh-Cleveland game is to begin at 9:30 PST. And even if the Browns defeat the Steelers in Three Rivers Stadium, something they did last season for the first time in 17 years, the Chargers could be eliminated before the kickoff in Denver at 1 p.m. PST Sunday because the Houston-Cincinnati game starts three hours earlier.
The powerlessness of the Chargers' position was part of the reason Saunders wanted to concentrate on the morale rather than the possible playoff value of winning at Denver.
"We all have had that carrot dangled in front our face for a long time--the playoffs and the home-field advantage," Saunders said. "All those kinds of things have made the last several weeks a situation where everybody felt like that is what we were playing for. Maybe it is good just to go into a game and play that game just for the sake of itself and let the outcome decide what fate we do have."
The anticipation of a playoff berth began building for the Chargers when they started the season 8-1. It has haunted them ever since. Saunders said part of the reason for the Chargers' five-game losing streak is that the playoff pressure has made some players try too hard.
"There are must games, and it has been a long time for the players on this football team and for this organization to have played in a game they had to win or played in a game with an opportunity to possibly get in the playoffs," he said. "We went into the last three games with the real feeling we had to win these games to put us in the playoff picture solidly.
"We've gotten back almost to the point of playing not to lose rather than just cutting it loose and playing to win. When you do that, mistakes become more frequent."
The effect has been a steamroll ride down hill that neither Saunders nor the player have been able to stop.
"We won one game, then two games, then five and then seven, then eight. It felt great," Saunders said. "Everyone felt super, and then we got blown out in Seattle and got defeated by Denver. We just never regrouped to the type of football team that we were in those eight straight wins."
Coach Al Saunders could be seen on television replays Sunday speaking strongly to Dan Fouts after the quarterback overthrew Gary Anderson in the end zone on fourth-and-two with 50 seconds left in the 20-7 loss to Indianapolis. But when asked Monday about the incident, Saunders gave only veiled criticism of Fouts' decision to call the play. . . . Center Don Macek, who missed Sunday's game with a calf muscle tear, is questionable for the Denver game, Saunders said. . . . The Broncos defeated the Chargers, 31-17, four games ago in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, but the Chargers won last season's game in Denver, 9-3, to end an eight-game losing streak. The Broncos have clinched a playoff spot and can win the AFC West by defeating the Chargers or if Seattle loses at Kansas City.