Unfortunately being a San Diego Chargers fan means we are almost certain to be disappointed in some way, shape or form this season. It’s one of the things we come to expect and we deal with it remarkably well. Charger fans are resilient; every year around this time we’ll dust off and come back out in full force no matter what happened last season. I’ve chosen to embrace the unique frustration we cannot seem to avoid and list the top 10 games where the Chargers have broken our hearts.
Note: I’m only 36 years old – games prior to 1980 are not on the list.
10. 2007 Season, week 4, vs. Kansas City
It wasn’t just the game itself, which was absolutely wretched, but what the game represented. This was when we first realized that the Norv Turner Chargers were not the same dominant force as they had been the year before, and it was tough to accept. For the next five years the only thing the Chargers would do consistently under Norv is underachieve.
Week one of the ’07 season featured an underwhelming win over the Bears. Week 2 included an embarrassing loss to the Patriots. With week 3 came a frustrating but somewhat tolerable loss at Green Bay, and week 4 was when our worst fears were realized: Norv Turner sucked as a head coach. The Chiefs beat the Chargers convincingly at the Q dropping them to 1-3. After a first half of FG’s rather than TD’s, the Chargers held an unimpressive 10 point lead. In the second half we were outscored 24-0 by an awful Chiefs team. A Chiefs team that was 31st in yards per game and points per game in 2007, and dead last in rushing; a Chiefs team which finished the season 4-12; a Damon Huard led Chiefs team. The only enjoyable thing about this game was the stadium-wide chant of Marty! Marty! late in the 4th quarter.
Incidentally, this is also the unofficial moment when Kevin Acee and Nick Canepa stopped acting as journalists and became unapologetic Norv Turner propagandists.
9. 2012 Season, week 6, vs. Denver
Absolutely brutal. Ok, the Chargers probably would not have won the west over Denver last year but in week 6 we really didn’t know that yet. The Bolts were 3-2, the Broncos were 2-3, and San Diego held a 24-0 halftime lead. Who knows how the season would have turned out if the Chargers found themselves 2 full games up only 6 games in? But they improbably coughed this game up getting outclassed 35-0 in the second half. The Bolts were dominated in every imaginable way the final 30 minutes and they would go on to lose 5 of their next 6 games. What made this one so unbearable was that after Denver’s first drive of the second half you could see it coming a mile away. It was like a slow train wreck you could not turn away from. Heartbreaking.
8. 2010 Season, week 16, at Cincinnati.
The entire 2010 season was heartbreaking, not just because we traded up for Ryan Matthews, and not just because we would miss the playoffs for the first time in 5 years, and not just because of the comedic special teams play, and not just because we lost to the Raiders for the first time in forever (twice), but also because of the injuries, the blackouts, the 4th straight 2-3 start, the loss of LT, and an absolute debacle at Cincinnati in week 16. The Bengals were bad that year, really bad. They entered week 16 with a 3-11 mark and had lost 10 of 11. The Chargers were recovering from another slow start but wins against the lowly Bengals and Broncos to round out the season would have put them at 10-6, tied for the division lead with KC, and clinching their 5th straight division title by way of a better division and conference record than the Chiefs. But it wouldn’t happen; the hapless Bengals thumped the Chargers, and a Kansas City win meant the Bolts would be watching the playoffs for the first time since the 2005 season. Maybe I hated this one so much because it was about 20 degrees, windy, and I froze my ass off for three hours only to realize that the Bolts golden years were behind them.
7. 2007 Season, AFC Championship, vs. New England.
There was a lot to like about this game, after all they had turned the season around and were only one game away from the Super Bowl. No one really expected the Chargers to even be in this game so it’s hard to characterize it as heartbreaking. Yet, it was. The Chargers settled for three FG’s after breaching the NE 10 yard line three times, and a 4th after stalling on the NE 23. 4 scoring opportunities, 4 FG’s, no TD’s and no LT. The Chargers would have matched up well against the G-men in that Super Bowl who definitely were not the ’94 Niners. So close, so heartbreaking.
6. 1981 Season, AFC Championship, vs. Cincinnati.
After the Epic in Miami, you really thought this was the Chargers year. Although the Bengals were probably a better overall team than the Bolts in 1981, this Charger team was stacked and capable of anything. As America’s Game chronicled, they are one of the best teams in history not to get a ring. They led the NFL in points scored, Fouts threw for 4800 yards and 33 TD’s, and Chuck Muncie led the NFL with 19 rushing TD’s. This was a balanced attack, the kind that gets you a Super Bowl ring.
But they had to go to Cincinnati in January during an unusually frigid spell. This was the most heartbreaking thing about this game - it was played at -37 degrees Fahrenheit accounting for wind chill. Seriously?? Come on football gods, give these San Diego guys a break. The Bengals jumped out to a 10-0 lead and led 17-7 at the half. They would score the only 10 points of the second half and at no point did the Chargers really compete for the AFC title. It’s impossible to blame them; they were playing a good team in impossible conditions. Yet anytime your team makes it to the conference championship and misses out on the big game it’s a little bit heartbreaking.
5. 1994 Season, Super Bowl, vs. San Francisco
Ok, San Diego fans, remember when the Padres made the ’98 World Series and were rewarded by playing the most successful Yankee team in their franchise history? A team that won more games than any other Yankee team, ever?! In 1994 the Chargers got to play a Niners team that was just as good, and probably a little bit better. This Niner team was not going to lose to anyone the AFC put up. Tired of conceding the NFC crown to Dallas they went ahead and bought all the talent money could buy and the Chargers never stood a chance. SF scored over 500 points on the season, and just look at their post season point totals: 44 against Chicago, 38 against Dallas, and 49 against the Chargers. The fact that the 49ers were so good was one of two things that made the ’94 Super Bowl so heartbreaking, the other as how fast the game got out of hand. Less than 5 minutes into the game the Chargers were down 14-0 and any hopes of an upset were simply unrealistic.
Being in San Diego had never been so much fun those two weeks between the AFC championship game and the Super Bowl. Buildings lit up with lightning bolts, constant national news coverage for our players, and a sense of pride and hope in the air. Then 3 plays into it Young hit Rice over the middle for a 44 yard TD and the route was on. The season made Chargers fans proud, but the game was heartbreaking.
4. 1980 Season, AFC Championship, vs. Oakland
Anyone who has been in a football discussion with an intellectually-challenged Raider fan (redundant) has heard this argument, “how many rings do you guys have?” It’s absolutely insufferable and it’s pointless to explain that the fact that the Raiders last won a title thirty years ago is absolutely meaningless today. But it’s their go-to move and there is no way to get around the fact that the Raiders have 3 Super Bowl titles to the Bolts 0. The 1980 season should have made this idiotic argument a little easier to answer. The Chargers were loaded on offense; they had the #1 and #2 WR’s in the NFL as far as receiving yards and three of the top four. Joiner, Jefferson and Winslow all had over 1100 yards that year which is absolutely insane. They entered the playoffs as the #1 seed only to break our hearts in the AFC championship against the Raiders. The Raiders would get the second of their three titles against an Eagles team who the Chargers had beaten in the regular season. Since this was the Bolts first trip to the AFC championship it probably didn’t seem too heartbreaking at the time. After all, we were back the next year and it probably only seemed like a matter of time before they would hoist the Lombardi trophy. More than thirty years later we can look back at this and hang our heads in heartbreaking frustration.
3. 2004 Season, AFC wild card round, vs. NY Jets
Sometimes I still see Nate Keading’s overtime FG attempt sail wide right in my sleep. After that 40 yard chip shot missed, the entire stadium deflated. The Jets marched deep into Charger territory, ran down the clock, and Doug Obrien sent the winning FG through the uprights with just 5 seconds remaining. This was an otherwise remarkable year for the Chargers: they went from worst to first and won the AFC West in convincing fashion. Gates emerged out of nowhere to become the top tight end in the NFL, LT rushed for over 1300 yards with 17 TD’s, and Brees threw 27 TD’s to just 7 INT’s. The offense was dynamic and often looked unstoppable, until that wild card game when a team that did not at all resemble the 2004 regular-season Bolts showed up to the Q. The offense was slow and conservative; it was, in fact, what critics derisively referred to as Martyball.
Does this game deserve to be #3? Here is the reason I put it where I did: I feel like the ’04-’09 Bolts were the most talented in franchise history. It is a tough call but I think they were a little more balanced than the early 80’s Chargers. So the final three games on this list are all from this era and this was by far the least heartbreaking of the three. I remember leaving the stadium that day in much better spirits than the ’09 or ’06 losses. For the first time in a long time the Chargers were competitive and the future seemed promising. But nonetheless they should have been playing an overrated Pittsburgh team the next week for a trip to the AFC championship.
2. 2009 Season, Divisional round playoffs, vs. NY Jets
You’ve got to be kidding me. Another home playoff loss to an inferior Jets team? Stalled offense, uncharacteristic unsportsmanlike penalty calls, Nate Keading can’t kick a FG…it was like Groundhogs Day.
1. 2006 Season, Divisional round playoffs, vs. New England
This was the year. This was the most complete San Diego team ever assembled. Not only that but the Colts were having an off year and the best team in the NFC was the Rex Grossman-led Bears. The Chargers had home field locked up through the playoffs and after a 14-2 season it appeared that there was nothing outside of the Bolts themselves capable of stopping this team. But these are the Chargers and this is what they do best. The Chargers absolutely refused to win this game. The most stunning play in the Chargers long history of underachievement came on a fourth down play late in the game. Up by 8 with about six minutes remaining the Chargers D stepped up and picked off Tom Brady. Marlon McCree, rather than go down, ran with it, fumbled, and the Pats recovered with a fresh set of downs. They would go on to score 11 points in the final 5+ minutes and send the Chargers home. Only the Chargers could pull this loss off. I do not believe at any other time in the franchise’s NFL history did they have undoubtedly the best team in the league. The ’06 team was – what a heartbreaker that game was.
Before you go calling me one of those scrooge-type pessimist fans, I’m not. I can’t wait to watch Mike McCoy and Tom Telesco usher in a new expectation in San Diego. I’m hoping this post closes that chapter in Chargers history and turns this organization into perennial winners. Next Sunday I’m going to post the 10 greatest games in Charger history.