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Monday nightmares: Chargers blow another big lead in prime time

It was too little, too late for Philip Rivers. Philip Rivers sparkled early, but threw a back-breaking pick in the fourth quarter that Brian Cushing returned for six.  (AP/Gregory Bull)

Perhaps the San Diego Chargers should tactfully decline all future Monday Night Football assignments. The last time they played in prime time, the Chargers blew a 24-0 lead and gave up 35 unanswered points in an Oct. 15, 2012 shocker against the Denver Broncos. New Chargers head coach Mike McCoy was on the winning side for that one as the Broncos' offensive coordinator, but he discovered what it meant to be snakebitten in Chargers fashion. In San Diego's first Monday night game since that epic collapse, McCoy's Chargers blew a 28-7 third-quarter lead and allowed a reeling Houston Texans team to take a 31-28 victory. Texans kicker Randy Bullock booted a game-winning 41-yard field goal as time wound down.

"We kind of found our groove in the second half," Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt said after the game. "We weren't really clicking in the first half, we weren't really putting things together, but we just found a way. And that's why I'm proud of this team-- even though it looked like all the odds were against us, nobody got down or worried -- we all just fought. Big play by Cush, and a heck of a game all around."

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The "big play by Cush" came courtesy of Houston linebacker Brian Cushing, who perfectly read a pass from Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers to running back Danny Woodhead with 9:38 left in the game. Cushing picked the Rivers pass off and ran the ball into the end zone from the Chargers' 18-yard line, tying the game at 28. It was a triumphant return for Cushing, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 of the 2012 season and signed a six-year, $55.643 million contract extension on Sept. 3.

"I told him, 'You earned that new contract you just got, buddy,'" Watt said.

Brian Cushing silenced the Chargers' hopes for a season-opening win. (AP/Gregory Bull) Brian Cushing silenced the Chargers' hopes for a season-opening win. (AP/Gregory Bull)

It was the only interception Rivers threw in the game, and up until then, one of the few errant throws he made. For two-and-one-half quarters, Rivers looked like the quarterback he was from 2006 through 2010 -- one of the NFL's best -- as opposed to the balky, inaccurate thrower he had become in the last couple of seasons. In the first half, Rivers completed eight of 14 passes for 112 yards and three touchdowns. He overcame all of his recent negative tendencies, instead throwing with confidence in the pocket even when under pressure, and even running for an 18-yard gain, the longest of his NFL career. It was the fourth time Rivers had thrown for three touchdowns in the first half in his career.

But even before the game was tied, Rivers reverted, and the change was obvious. Pressed to make big plays, he tried to stick the ball in tight windows and made questionable decisions on downfield passes. Rivers had been very smart in dumping the ball off to his hot reads for most of the game, but once the contest tightened, it seemed that he wanted to win the game single-handedly. Eddie Royal, who caught two of Rivers' four touchdown passes on the day, dropped a crucial pass from Rivers on third down in the drive following the interception. Everything that had worked for Rivers disappeared just as quickly as it had arrived.

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As Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune pointed out, Rivers had a 134.8 passer rating with 10:46 left in third quarter and the Chargers up, 28-7. From then on, his passer rating was 0.0.

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For Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, it was the exact opposite reversal of fortune, through no less drastic. Schaub threw an interception to Chargers lineman Cam Thomas on the Texans' first play from scrimmage, which led to Rivers' first touchdown pass of the day on the very next play. But he finished the day with 34 completions in 45 attempts for 346 yards and three touchdowns. He never threw another interception after that first play. And San Diego's defense, strong in the first half, gave up conversions on third-and-13 and third-and 18 as the game progressed, and the Texans started marching out of a big hole.

"We're resilient," Schaub said after the game. "We've dealt with some adversity in the past, and we started off slow. But we fought hard, and we have a lot of character on our football team, and it showed here tonight. You never know what you're going to get in Week 1, but they're a good football team, and we're just fortunate to come away with a win."

Cushing's great play aside, the entire Houston defense solidified in the second half after some very shaky moments early on. Rivers gashed Houston's leaky secondary in the first half, and the Chargers scored touchdowns on four of their first six drives. But on their last five drives, there were four three-and-outs, and that interception. San Diego managed just 10 yards on those last five drives.

Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips may have put it best on Twitter.

"We've got to go play a complete game," former Chargers head coach Norv Turner said after last year's collapse against the Broncos. "We've shown through three quarters of a game what we can do."

Nearly a year later, it seems that McCoy is reading from the same script. The Chargers blew five halftime leads in Turner's final season in San Diego, and McCoy's already one down.

After the game, Rivers seemed to know the drill all too well.

"You lose this way, and it stings a little more," the quarterback said. "It's disappointing we didn't finish the game, because we had control. You've got to play all four quarters."

Worse yet, there's little time for the Chargers to recover from this debacle -- they travel to Philadelphia this week to face the fast-paced Eagles on Sunday. Chip Kelly's team beat the Washington Redskins, 33-27, in the other Monday Night Football game contest on the evening.

BURKE: Kelly steals spotlight from RGIII in debut 

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