Oct. 20-- For Philip Rivers and teammates, the midpoint of the 2019 season comes in seven days, but the point of no return may already be here.
The Chargers have lost their past three games to drop their win-loss record to 2-5, and that's pretty crummy for a franchise that last year went 12-4 and won a playoff game on the road.
Other Rivers teams dug out of deep trenches, for sure; but that was long ago and this is now, with Rivers headed to his 38th birthday in December.
Here's the San Diegan's biggest problem in his quest for his first AFC West title since 2009: Neither Rivers nor his team is playing well overall and especially when it has the ball near the end zone.
Sunday's game provided more red-zone frustration, as the Chargers failed to score the winning touchdown on consecutive runs by Melvin Gordon inside the 1-both in the final seconds-and so took a 23-20 loss to the Tennessee Titans (3-4) in Nashville.
On the second run, Gordon fumbled away what could've been a touchdown plunge.
"You expect to get six inches and we didn't," said Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, who as a former NFL running back had extra reason for exasperation.
It's odd that an NFL offense would lose the ball so often in the red zone, but in addition to Rivers throwing three interceptions into the end zone this year despite good pass protection each time, the running backs have lost three fumbles at the goal line, each of those in a defeat. One of those was more a failed play than a fumble, Austin Ekeler having no real shot after the Broncos strung him out on fourth down as time expired in the first half.
"I'm at a loss for words right now," Lynn said minutes after Gordon's fumble.
The coach said he'd never gone through such an emotional whipsaw as in the final minute. He had seen two apparent touchdowns, either of which would've all but clinched a comeback victory. But the replay judge overturned each one. Next, when it appeared Gordon would power for a TD despite blocking breakdowns, he fumbled in the scrum.
Chargers fans complained that Ekeler deserved a touchdown, as initially ruled, a few plays earlier; Gordon came close, too, before the Eye in The Sky nixed his TD run. Titans fans, meantime, had their own beefs about officiating.
As for the football performance, give the Chargers a below-average grade despite decent work from a talent-thin offensive line and playmaking from end Joey Bosa, tight end Hunter Henry and Ekeler.
The Titans' Ryan Tannehill was harried more often, but passed better than Rivers on this day.
The Lynn-Whisenhunt-Rivers offensive braintrust once again overly trusted Gordon, who wasn't Earl Campbell even before accumulating rust during his nine-week holdout.
The running back, who went from Jan. 14 through this season's fourth game without playing, has yet to show peak form since returning. In his three games, featuring him at the outset has coincided with clunky runs and poor results, though Gordon showed improved form Sunday.
Nor was Gordon's fumble that decided the game his first fumble of the day.
He gathered the ball after a Titans linebacker muffed the recovery of his first-half fumble, caused by a defensive back in the open field.
The Gus Bradley defense had glaring breakdowns in the second half, and Tannehill, making his first start this year, took advantage. A San Diego Padres draftee showing hot-lava form, rookie receiver A.J. Brown, caught six Tannehill passes for 64 yards.
Rivers threw a perfect touchdown pass to Ekeler for 41 yards to pull his team within three points and made good plays on the final drive, giving receiver Mike Williams a chance to make a play in the end zone, where defensive pass interference put the Chargers on the 1.
However, Rivers was fortunate in other drives that Titans defensive backs dropped two of his passes, including one near Tennessee's 5.
And if you want to go way out there on the football margins, that Rivers isn't a threat to sneak the football-which Tom Brady and Drew Brees are-can be factored somewhere into Team Spanos' goal-line woes.
Expect speculation to grow about Rivers' NFL future beyond this season because he's in the last year of his contract and not lighting up defenses like he used to. He has said he wants to play next season in the Inglewood stadium that will open in 2020.
It wouldn't be this front office's style to make a splashy trade before the Oct. 29 deadline to get Rivers more help-which he needs-but the supporting cast figures to improve at some point. For instance, both All-Pro safety Derwin James and Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung are expected back this season, and if he's not traded, Gordon stands to find his stride.
While the AFC West could open up if the Chiefs (5-2) struggle as 2018 MVP Patrick Mahomes is sidelined by a knee injury, the Chargers are entering what looks like a tougher part of their schedule, starting with next Sunday's game at Chicago against the Bears (3-3) followed by a visit from the Packers (6-1).
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