The Chargers need to keep winning if they want their playoff chances to still have a pulse.
Against a 7-4 Cincinnati Bengals team Sunday, they couldn't do it.
The game, blacked out locally, was punctuated by a pass from Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to wide receiver Andrew Hawkins in the fourth quarter, a 55-yard catch-and-run on third-and-2 that got Cincinnati into field-goal position, which they capitalized on to make it a two-score battle. The Chargers would get it to one before the game ended.
San Diego was plagued by three turnovers and a Chargers defense that was at times spectacular, and at other times, simply outplayed.
"We gotta be more consistent," said linebacker Manti Te'o. "Coach [Pagano] said it best. Our good plays are great, our bad plays are really bad."
The first drive of the Chargers ended with a fumble by Antonio Gates, his second in opponent's territory this season. The Chargers' defense, which has been stymied in previous games, forced a quick three-and-out after the turnover.
Gates was stripped of the ball again in the third quarter, giving Cincinnati a first-and-down at its own 25.
The Bengals scored first, on their second drive of the game, moving 67 yards down the field in chunks (gained mostly on the ground, by running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard.)
"They just got some plays on us and we couldn't really stop the run," said cornerback Richard Marshall. "They had some good runners, tough runners. We knew that coming in."
But the Chargers tied it up with a 30-yard touchdown pass from Philip Rivers to tight end Ladarius Green on the next drive, moving 78 yards down the field in eight plays.
An Eric Weddle interception (off a deep pass by Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton) gave the ball back to the Chargers with a little over two minutes to go in the second quarter, but San Diego was unable to capitalize with a score.
The next trip into the end zone wouldn't come until almost the end of the third quarter, when the Bengals drove 75 yards in a little more than five minutes, scoring a touchdown on a pass from Dalton to wide receiver A.J. Green.
"I thought we played pretty well today, for the most part," Weddle said. "We kept this team within the game. I thought our defense showed toughness and kept the game within reach."
With eight minutes left to play in the fourth quarter, wide receiver Keenan Allen lost the ball after making a catch. The Bengals recovered, but a few plays later, safety Marcus Gilchrist forced a fumble. Weddle recovered, killing the Cincinnati drive. The Chargers used the gift to get three points with a field goal.
"It happens," Allen said. "Bad luck. I thought I had the ball tucked pretty good but they made a good play on the ball.
We definitely hurt ourselves. I feel like our offense is better than their defense, but we shot ourselves in the foot."
Richard Marshall started at cornerback in place of Derek Cox, who has been benched three times in the last four games. "I got the nod and the opportunity for me to be able to come in and play. I just feel comfortable and I wanted to show my teammates they can count on me when my number is called," Marshall said after the game.
Keenan Allen finished the game with eight receptions for 106 yards, making it the fifth time the rookie has reached the 100-yard milestone.