Sunday at Soldier Field wasn't the football equivalent of receiving their last rites, but the Chargers, losers of five in a row for the first time in eight years, can no longer deny the urgency of their situation. Their season will be on the brink when they face Tim Tebow and the visiting Denver Broncos next Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium.
How'd you like to take your chances with that particular combination about now? Tebow Time meets desperation time, with the two AFC West rivals rushing furiously in opposite directions.
But that's where San Diego finds itself in the wake of its latest meltdown, a 31-20 loss to the Chicago Bears that dropped the Chargers to 4-6 and put them two games behind first-place Oakland with six games remaining. San Diego hasn't seen a losing skid like this since starting 2003 at 0-5, the year before quarterback Philip Rivers was drafted, and long before head coach Norv Turner arrived in 2007.
"Losing five in a row is about as bad as it gets,'' Rivers said moments after revealing he's never lost five straight games before at any level of football. "We have to eliminate any of that, 'What does Oakland have to do? What about Kansas City?' We've just got to find a way to think we've got a one-game season against Denver at our place, and let's find a way to win that game.''
The Chargers are grasping for answers right now, but none are forthcoming. This is a San Diego team that looks lost, plays with little consistency or sense of focus, and has almost completely used up all the wiggle room afforded it by its better than usual 4-1 start. The playoffs essentially start next week for San Diego, because elimination from the postseason chase is just another loss away.
"It's the first time for me, it's the first time for the San Diego Chargers since '03, I guess,'' Rivers said. "It's tough. It challenges you physically and mentally. You've got to find a way in the morning to get up and get back to work and just worry about winning a game. That's about all that we can do at this point. We can't talk about all of the ifs and buts and playoff races because we're on a five-game skid.''
The one-game season stuff is the right approach to take, of course, but losing shakes a team's belief, and there's obviously not a lot of confidence coming forth from the Chargers locker room these days. This is a San Diego team that's just 13-14 from its first-round 2009 AFC divisional playoff loss to the Jets on, hasn't won a playoff game since 2008, and has managed to drop nine of its most recent 13 games on the road. They're saying all the right things in San Diego, but I'm not sure they're even buying their own spin.
All these Chargers are really clinging to is the past, and their history for digging their way out of the deepest holes. Like 2008, when they were 4-8 after 12 games but somehow still managed to win four in a row and claim another division title, edging out the slumping Broncos for a playoff berth. San Diego, of course, couldn't manage the same magic trick last year, and now, in the midst of this five-game slide, it must have some doubts whether it can chase down the Raiders or even climb past the Broncos?
Like they keep pointing out themselves, this is new territory for the Chargers. The last time they faced the Broncos, in Week 5 at Denver, they won and improved to 4-1 to build what looked to be a comfortable lead in the AFC West. But that's gone now, and San Diego knows time is of the essence. The Chargers are in a bind of their own making, and Sunday's missed opportunity against the streaking Bears -- the game was tied 17-17 in the third quarter before Chicago pulled away -- took its toll on even San Diego's most veteran players.
"It's been an emotional rollercoaster,'' said Chargers inside linebacker Takeo Spikes, in his 14th season. "I love this game so much, and I give it my all. The only thing I ever felt like is if you treat it right, it will treat you right, and it's always truthful. That aspect is what keeps me coming back.
"I still believe in this team. I still believe in what we do have. Because you never know, you never do know what's going to happen. The main thing is you've got to be ready when it happens.''
The Chargers weren't ready to snap their losing streak against Chicago. Rivers threw two more interceptions, the Chargers rushed for just 52 yards on 17 carries, and the San Diego defense allowed the Bears to convert a mind-boggling seven consecutive third-down opportunities in the second half (with Chicago finishing 8 of 14, 57 percent overall). Rivers made some plays, mostly to receiver Vincent Jackson (7 catches for 165 yards and a touchdown), but he also threw a crushing end zone interception to Bears safety Major Wright in the fourth quarter, and Chargers running back Ryan Mathews contributed a key fumble that Chicago converted into a tack-on touchdown.
"You can't put your finger on it, because it seems to be something different every week,'' Jackson said. "As soon as we put it together and play the way we're capable of playing, I think we'll be tough to stop. But absolutely, (time is running out). We only play 16 regular season games. We're not like the NBA or hockey. Each and every game is precious, and we are kind of behind the eight ball right now.''
If anything, Rivers said the Chargers' late-season rally of 2008 taught him that anything is possible if you put the blinders on and keep plowing ahead. Win next week against Denver, and then build on it the following week at Jacksonville. At 6-6, the world may look like a different place. But what else can the Chargers say? They've got six games remaining and their only hope is to channel their desperation into a positive force from here on out.
"I remember this from being 4-8, that you can talk yourself into the tank -- even though we didn't lose five in a row that year, and that felt even worse then than it does now,'' he said. "But if you just look at it like one game, one week, and say you're going to help your team fight like crazy to try to win, that's about all we can do at this point.
"It's a tough situation, but I think we have the guys to keep the boat afloat. Nobody is going to quit, I know that. We didn't quit in those circumstances [in 2008], and we certainly won't now.''
Another Chargers season is on life support, and next week could tell the whole story. If their five-game losing streak grows to six, the wrong kind of history is going to be made this year in San Diego.