SAN DIEGO — That huge gush heard just shortly before 9 Monday night was the massive deflation of the San Diego Chargers' NFL season. Air left the Chargers' balloon like a jet stream.
Whoosh. Bye-bye, Chargers. The team owned and operated by the family Spanos goofed. Put a fork in them. This one will be forever remembered as the Collapse at Qualcomm.
Losing is one thing. The Chargers did that, 35-24, to the Denver Broncos before the ever-eager, ever-hopeful packed house of 68,604.
This also played out in front of the millions who watch "Monday Night Football" on ESPN. If you are the Spanoses or General Manager A.J. Smith or Coach Norv Turner, you wanted to be part of this nationally televised stink bomb like you wanted a root canal.
The Chargers led at the half, 24-0. By the time there were still nine minutes left in the game, Peyton Manning and the Broncos had caught and passed them at 28-24. For the Broncos, it was a comeback of stirring proportions, mitigated just slightly by the fact they had made it against the Chargers. For the Chargers, it was a disaster psychologically, as well as a public relations nightmare.
It was also a record-setter.
--It was the first time in NFL history a team trailing by 24 points won by double digits.
--It tied the NFL record for largest comeback win by a road team.
--It tied the largest comeback win in "Monday Night Football" telecast history.
--It marked Manning's 47th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime, as he tied Dan Marino for most all-time.
Speaking of records, this left both teams tied for the lead in the west division of the AFC with 3-3 records. Much had been made here of San Diego's chance to take a two-game lead in the division and complete the first go-around of games against the division with a sweep. Fat chance, as it turned out.
Oh, there will be brave words coming forth from Chargerland now, especially because San Diego has a bye week and more time to work on its lines. Turner, who has no choice but to muddle on, began the exercise after the game when he said, "There are a lot of people who are going to count us out. People will say that we can't respond or can't come back from this. I've got a lot of faith in the guys in the locker room.…We're capable of becoming a very good team."
A cynic might respond to that with the question: Yes, but with who in charge?
Turner, a really decent man who seems to be protected like a secret son by Smith, has 10 more games, at the most, to turn this team from disaster to playoffs. The Broncos' 3-3 feels like 5-1; the Chargers' like 0-6. If Turner can get the Chargers out of this muck and into the playoffs, then they can make a sequel to "Miracle on 34th Street" about him and the team. He won't just be up for coach of the year, but for canonization.
Manning's performance should not be lost in the morass of the Chargers' choke. He, of course, had much to do with it.
In the first half, he was barely a factor because he barely got to play. His team fumbled a punt and a kickoff return deep in Broncos' territory to facilitate two San Diego scores. He hit a receiver so open the only thing that would have kept him out of the end zone was if he tripped and fell. Which Eric Decker did.
In the first quarter, Manning got to run eight plays. His two starting points for those were the Denver 14- and the Denver 19-yard lines. The Chargers kept dropping punts just shy of the goal line and Manning's kick return players, when they weren't fumbling, were getting him no breathing room.
Things got only a bit better for him in the second quarter, when he got to run 16 plays, including one kneel-down with time expiring at the end of the half. His field position starts in the period were Denver's 3, 5, 22 and 20. The Broncos' deepest penetration in the first half was San Diego's 46.
In the second half, of course, Manning and the Broncos pretty well camped out in the Chargers' end zone.
Manning was his usual self, reading the defenses, gesturing to teammates like a guy trying to organize a soccer game of 6-year-olds, waving his arms as he changed plays and frustrating the Chargers into numerous encroachment penalties. When he retires, he can work at an airport, motioning planes into the gate. It's hard to have any idea what he is doing, or why. But it works. Monday night, it worked for three touchdown passes and the Broncos' defense took care of the rest.
Defensive back Tony Carter picked up a fumble caused by the never-ending pressure of defensive end Elvis Dumerville and returned it 56 yards for one score. Cornerback Chris Harris sealed the deal with a 46-yard interception return for a 35-24 lead.
That was one of four passes for interceptions thrown by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who said afterward, "So much was at stake for an early year division game. It's not the way you want to go into a bye week."
The best summaries of the night came from the opposing locker rooms.
The Broncos' Carter, asked whether he had ever been part of a comeback from 24-0, said, "Only in Pop Warner football."
Chargers safety Eric Weddle, asked to comment on the loss, said, "I don't really know what to say right now."
Here's guessing Chargers fans do.
Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this column.