DENVER — No sir, the San Diego Chargers season couldn't just end.
It had to be whited-out. It had to be brushed over and covered up and left wet and shivering.
Playing in a blizzard the size of whatever was caught in their throats, the Chargers lost to the Denver Broncos, 24-0, Sunday and were officially eliminated from the National Football League playoffs.
Actually the loss didn't end it--their season was over 10 minutes into this game with the announcement of the Houston Oilers' 21-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. But for a team that, just six games ago, had the best record in all of football, that ending was too simple, and not enough.
On as awful an afternoon as anyone should endure, even at Mile High Stadium, the Chargers were not allowed to just slip off to the exits. They were forced to beg for them.
The numbers: Fourteen inches of snow on the ground at game time, three more that fell during the game.
Twenty degrees. Minus-23 degrees wind-chill factor.
A Denver touchdown on the game's first punt return. A Denver touchdown on an interception return.
San Diego kicker Vince Abbott missed a 26-yard field goal. Denver kicker Rich Karlis made a 26-yarder barefooted.
On one Denver punt that was downed at the San Diego four-yard line, Charger punt returner Lionel James never took his hands out of his pockets.
The Chargers' one-time 8-1 record was minimized and freeze-dried at 8-7. And because of the snow, they weren't even allowed to leave the scene of this particular crime until this morning.
The Broncos, meanwhile, won the American Football Conference West title and have cinched the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
"I wasn't cold at all, I refused to get cold," said Denver quarterback John Elway, who was just 7 of 20 for 98 yards but managed big completions of 15, 19 and 22 yards. "I wouldn't even go near a heater."
Said Karlis: "I don't know if I was cold. When my foot thaws out, I'll tell you."
The Chargers weren't being so cute.
"We were sitting on top of the world, we fell off, and now we've finally hit bottom . . . we've landed," Charger safety Vencie Glenn said. "It will be kind of a long off-season."
For the record, Glenn was the last Charger on the field this season. He paused in the snowstorm to take off his gloves and run to a sideline fence and hand them to a fan who just happened to ask.
What the heck. He will now have six months to shake everything off.
"Find something positive in this game, I ask you, find something positive," defensive end Joe Phillips said. "It's hard to find anything positive in what has happened. I'm amazed. It's so hurtful."
Amazing was the adjective of the day. In front of an estimated crowd of 30,000, the smallest crowd since the stadium expanded to hold 75,000-plus in 1977, the Chargers departed the 1987 season in a state of disbelief.
"The final score was 24-0, that was it?" asked tight end Kellen Winslow. "They didn't score again?"
The Chargers woke up in their Denver hotel Sunday morning--about eight hours after a midnight arrival that was delayed by snow--and smiled.
Said Billy Ray Smith: "I looked out my window and sang, 'Sleigh bells ring, are you listening . . . '
"This weather was perfect for us. They have a barefoot kicker, a California quarterback and a misdirection offense. This was going to be our day."
The problems started when they couldn't agree upon how to dress.
Safety Vencie Glenn covered his entire frame with a latex body suit and then, deciding that wasn't enough, wrapped plastic bags around his feet. Cornerback Danny Walters wore a turtleneck that covered everything below the eyes.
Defensive end Les Miller wore much less.
"Just a half-shirt and a jock," he said. "The way I figure it, cold is mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter."
Four plays into the game, the Chargers punted. Denver's Kevin Clark took the punt at what appeared to be the Denver 29.
No big deal. He ran smack into three Chargers--David Brandon, Billy Ray Smith and and Karl Wilson--at the same time.
Except, all at once, the three Chargers slipped and missed the tackle. Clark bounced back, turned right and headed up the other side of the field.
By now, most of the other Chargers also had slipped. Clark ran into Pete Holohan, but then Holohan grabbed him and lost him and the coast was clear.
Seventy-one yards for a touchdown, just 1:50 into the game, and that was the game.
"That certainly set the tide," Charger Coach Al Saunders said.
A word from the guilty:
"I didn't wrap him up, I just blew it," Smith said.
"He slipped off me," Brandon said.
"It was really weird," Wilson said.
By the start of the second half, fans were sledding down the aisles. It should have reminded the Chargers of something.