If the Chargers didn't play in the NFL's worst division, Sunday's game against the New England Patriots certainly would be a must-win.
The Chargers have tumbled to 2-4, their worst start in four seasons under coach Norv Turner. Overall, it's their worst start since going 1-5 to open the 2003 season, when they finished an NFL-worst 4-12.
A 2-5 start would seem to doom the Bolts. Their saving grace, though, is playing in the AFC West, which they've won four straight years. Kansas City is the division's surprise leader, and at 3-2 has its only winning record. San Diego, Oakland and Denver are all 2-4.
Coach Norv Turner said on the eve of training camp that he thought this could be the best of his Chargers teams. He was either overselling his team, or he didn't realize it would underachieve so badly.
San Diego's four losses have been to Kansas City, Seattle, Oakland and St. Louis, all on the road. Those four teams were a combined 15-49 last year. St. Louis was so bad -- 1-15 -- that it got the first pick in the draft. That player, quarterback Sam Bradford, helped hand San Diego a dismal 20-17 defeat last Sunday.
Now they've got to face Tom Brady and a Patriots team that will be trying to tie the idle New York Jets atop the AFC East at 5-1.
"There's always a sense of urgency," said quarterback Philip Rivers, who could be without favorite targets Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd due to injuries. "We're not going to play harder this week than we've played. We go out to win every game. But certainly there's an understanding of how much we need to win this game. We're not looking at our record or what's ahead. It's about trying to win one game at home. We've played well at home the first two games and we need to play well again to win this game."
The Chargers' only victories this year have been against Jacksonville and Arizona.
Digging out of this hole is "going to take much of the same of what it's taken in past years," said Rivers, who leads the NFL with 2,008 yards passing. "This current team hasn't been 2-4. We've been 2-3 in all those years, but never got to 2-4. Obviously we had the year where we were at 4-8 at one point, so it was even worse. We just got to clean some things up."
In 2008, the Chargers won the division at 8-8, thanks to a four-game, season-ending winning streak coupled with Denver's historic collapse. It's possible that 8-8 or even 7-9 could be enough to win the division this year.
"I think one thing when you watch our games, we're doing a lot of things well, but we're doing enough bad, and enough bad in key moments that are keeping us from winning these close games. Especially on the road we've struggled. We've played well at home, but obviously this will be the toughest opponent we've played."
San Diego and New England have been rivals dating to the birth of the AFL. While the Chargers beat the Patriots for the 1963 AFL title, New England eliminated the Chargers from the playoffs in 2006 and '07.
Those are the games that stick most with Chargers fans.
In the AFC championship game following the 2007 season, Rivers played on a shredded ACL ligament in his right knee but the Chargers lost 21-12 to the then-perfect Patriots. A year earlier, the Chargers had every conceivable meltdown in a home divisional playoff game and lost 24-21 despite Brady's three interceptions.
The Chargers beat New England in the regular season in 2008, when Matt Cassel replaced the injured Brady.
"We've done some good things against them in the past and some not so good," Rivers said. "Ultimately we've got to do all the things that you always have to do to win a football game. We don't need to do anything special, but we're going to have to play really well because this is no doubt one of the best teams in the league right now."
Brady knows the Chargers have turned seasons around after early struggles under Turner, who is 92-102 in three stints as an NFL head coach.
"We're aware of that and I don't think we're getting a team that has four losses on the road. We're getting a team that's been dominating games at home," Brady said. "We know we've got to play our best game. Each guy in the locker room's got to have their best game of the year.
"I think you've always got to expect to go into the fourth quarter with these guys," he added. "It's few and far between when you're going to be in control of the game and running the clock out in the fourth quarter against the Chargers. That's not the way it goes. I think you've got to prepare to play your best in the fourth quarter."
He also said it's as close to a rivalry without being in the same division.
"I think it adds to those regular-season games when you have a postseason history. There's definitely a level of intensity when we play each other. Even though we don't play them twice a year like a division opponent I feel like we know their team very well just because we've played them so many times. It's exciting for the players."
San Diego's special teams have been a mess this year, and now they've got to face Brandon Tate and Patrick Chung. Tate has returned two kickoffs this year for touchdowns. The Chargers allowed Seattle's Leon Washington to return two kickoffs for TDs in the second half of their loss to the Seahawks on Sept. 26.
Chung blocked two kicks in a 41-14 win at Miami on Oct. 4, the night Tate had his second kickoff return for a TD.