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BILL PLASCHKE

America's Finest City has the stupor Chargers

Another great regular season, another January, another playoff game -- and San Diego again finds a way to lose. This time the Chargers fall to the underdog Jets, 17-14.

January 18, 2010|Bill Plaschke

For the final four months of every year, they are the finest attraction in America's Finest City, sunny and blue and positively electric.

Then, for four hours every January, they become the San Diego Boo.

It happened here again Sunday, 70,000 screaming fans falling headfirst into football's biggest tourist trap, the San Diego Chargers suckering everyone into finally believing that they could hang with postseason pressure.

Well, once again, the Bolts bolted. They ran from an 11-game win streak. They ran from the league's most talented offense. They ran from everything that made them one of the Super Bowl favorites until they bloodily banged into the hard wall of their history.

Welcome to Seasick World.

The team with the rookie quarterback and rookie coach and weary players scored 17 points.

The team with the home advantage and rest advantage and manpower scored 14 points.

The New York Jets upset the Chargers in the divisional playoffs at Qualcomm Stadium on a wonderfully cool afternoon that ended in the chilling black of night.

Just like last January. And the January before that. And the January before that. And two Januarys before that.

"I've been here seven seasons and the same thing happens every year," said Chargers linebacker Stephen Cooper, shaking his head in a locker room filled with the team's annual blank stares.

After some consideration, he did allow as to how this loss was different.

"This," he said, "was the worst."

He will probably get no argument from the local servicemen and women, dressed in fatigues and scowls, who futilely led Chargers cheers on the giant video scoreboard.

He will certainly get no argument from Jets who celebrated by parading giddily around the field as if it were Times Square, or Chargers fans who shouted angrily at departing players, or LaDainian Tomlinson as he fought to keep his composure.

"To lose this game, I'm at a loss for words," said the San Diego running back.

Check out the Gaglamp District.

A Chargers team that had scored at least 20 points in 22 consecutive games -- the league's longest streak -- barely scored twice with a conservative game plan that can best be described as boneheaded.

"Your defense can hold them all you want, but if you keep giving them the ball back, they're going to eventually score, and you will lose," said linebacker Shawne Merriman.

A Chargers kicker named Nate Kaeding, after successfully connecting on 69 consecutive field-goal attempts from 40 yards or closer, missed both of his attempts in that range.

"It's going to be a tough few months," Kaeding said.

A Chargers discipline that had resulted in the fewest penalties in team history during the regular season -- 78 -- dissolved into 10 penalties that led to two Jets scores.

"It's one thing to lose, but to lose like this?" Merriman said. "This hurts."

This is the kind of loss that eventually cost coach Marty Schottenheimer his job after the 2006 season, when the Chargers blew a 14-2 regular-season record by losing to the visiting New England Patriots in a similar divisional playoff game.

Norv Turner, you're up.

The colorless Chargers coach, whose approach seems in direct contradiction to his team's sparkling talent, was the boss when the Chargers were embarrassed last January in Pittsburgh.

He suffers a more direct hit here -- maybe even eventually a job-ending one? -- because the loss cut right to the heart of what Turner does best.

He calls the plays. And the play-calling stunk.

From Antonio Gates across the middle to Malcolm Floyd down the side to Vincent Jackson everywhere, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers clearly had his choice of fresh connections against an undersized Jets secondary.

Then why did Turner insist on fastening his team to the weary legs of Tomlinson?

The Chargers gained 51 yards passing on their only first-half scoring drive and had used the air to outgain the Jets, 157-12, at one point in the second quarter.

But seemingly every drive included an off-tackle run by the Chargers' faded star, who plodded repeatedly into the heart of the Jets' defense before disappearing under a pile of green.

On nine of the 11 Chargers drives, Tomlinson carried the ball at least once. Yet he averaged only two steps per carry, finishing with 24 yards rushing, damaging the Chargers far worse than the Jets.

The silliness of Turner's vision was finally, roundly booed on the first play of the Chargers' first drive after the Jets had taken a 10-7 lead in the fourth quarter.

Yeah, they gave the ball to Tomlinson. And, yeah, he gained one yard.

Said Tomlinson: "Yeah, I heard them."

When asked if he thought he stuck with the running game too long, Turner kept grinding.

"No, I don't," he said. "With this group, if you turn it into just a pass every down, it gets tough."

So the Chargers played scared. And the results were frightening.

That USC kid, Mark Sanchez, was set free long enough to throw a scrambling, go-ahead two-yard touchdown pass on what everybody thought would be a run.

That league-best Jets running attack was allowed to keep pounding enough to finally break through with Shonn Greene's 53-yard clinching touchdown dash, a sprint that was set up by -- you guessed it -- a Sanchez pass.

The Jets played as if they had nothing to lose, and they didn't. The Chargers played as if they had everything to lose, and they lost it all.

And don't think the locals don't know it.

"Coach [Rex] Ryan had his team ready and they won," said Cooper, who pointedly did not mention his own boss, officially beginning another winter of finger-pointing and coach-grilling.

As always, the San Diego Chargers are a nice team to visit.

As always, you wouldn't want to live here.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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