The art of losing: Chargers finding new ways to drop close games

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Sunday was a new one for Los Angeles Chargers safety Jaylen Watkins.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Chargers were the first team to get called for a defensive pass interference penalty in the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter this season.

The flag thrown on cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. as he collided with speedy receiver Courtland Sutton led to a 53-yard field goal by Brandon McManus that won the game for the Denver Broncos.

"It's just one of those things, man. You can't leave the game in that position where a call can determine a field goal at the end of the game," Watkins said. "It's a bad way for us to end the game, and a lot of this has been self-inflicted -- not taking care of people when we should and getting behind the eight-ball at the end of the game.

"Now, when it gets to the end and something like that happens, it's crucial, as opposed to being up seven points and now we're still defending our end zone."

Hayward believes it should have been a no-call. However, Al Riveron, head of officiating for the league, explained the reasoning for the call below.

The call itself was debatable -- Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn pleaded his case to officials after the game -- but it provided yet another way for the Chargers to lose a close game this season.

"To fight back and give yourself a chance to win the game and then to end on a play like that is very frustrating," Lynn said. "But like I just told the team, we didn't have to be in that situation. I never say it's one call or one play that ends a football game. There were a lot of plays in the game that could have been made that we did not make."

A year removed from a 12-4 season in which they leaned on grit and execution to win close games, 2019 has been the opposite for the hard-luck Chargers, who sit at 4-8 and on the outside looking in when it comes to the postseason.

All eight losses this season have come by seven points or fewer, the most such losses this season by an NFL team. Last year, the Chargers finished 7-1 (including postseason) in games decided by one score.

"Last year we found a way to win these close games," Hayward said. "We were on the other end of these close games. Now we've found a way to lose these close games, but these next four we have to find a way to win them."

The Chargers had two touchdowns overturned by replay officials and then fumbled at the goal line in a late-game loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 7.

Philip Rivers threw game-ending interceptions in his team's losses to the Kansas City Chiefs in Mexico City, at the Detroit Lions, at the Oakland Raiders and at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Travis Benjamin dropped a touchdown pass late that would have tied the Week 3 game against the Houston Texans. The Chargers have had a league-high five touchdowns called back due to penalties this season.

While each loss has been unique, at the heart of each setback are consistent issues -- turnovers and an inability to take control of the game early.

The Chargers have a minus-10 turnover differential, fifth worst in the NFL. Last season they had a plus-1 turnover differential, tied for No. 15 in the league.

This year, the Chargers have been outscored 130-120 in the first half, so they often have to play from behind.

Last year, the Chargers outscored teams 229-164 in the opening half. The Chargers have two double-digit wins this year, against the tanking Miami Dolphins and the sleep-walking Green Bay Packers, whose quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, suggested not everyone handled their time in L.A. the right way. The Bolts won six games by double digits last season.

The Chargers can't score points. They are No. 26 in the NFL in red zone efficiency and No. 27 in goal-to-go efficiency. They are settling for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns, which is why the Bolts are No. 22 in scoring this year, averaging just 19.8 points a contest.

The Chargers were almost a touchdown better last year, scoring 25.3 points per game.

"All these things that we are doing to hurt ourselves is what we have to eliminate," running back Austin Ekeler said. "I feel like we are limiting them, but not to the point where it causes us to win. It is to the point where we just barely lose. We are right on the fence, it feels like. We have been on the fence for the entire season almost. ... We can't find a way to swing one way or the other."

For Rivers, who turns 38 on Sunday, this has been a trying year. In his 16th season and the final year of his contract, Sunday's setback to the Broncos was Rivers' 32nd career loss by three points or fewer, tied for the most such losses by a quarterback in the Super Bowl era (John Elway and Drew Brees).

In particular, Rivers has struggled with the game on the line. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rivers has completed 29% of his passes for 4.1 yards per attempt, with no touchdowns and four interceptions, in the final two minutes with his team trailing by seven points or fewer.

Despite those daunting statistics and uneven performances, Rivers says he'll keep fighting.

"It's been extra crazy for us this year considering all eight losses have been by one score, which usually means we have the ball in our hands when we're down one score," Rivers said. "It's been tough. The guys fought hard again today, and I know there's no consolation prize, but the guys are going to keep fighting.

"That's the only way we know. When it's all said and done and you look back, sometimes the 8-8s and the rough ones are the ones that were the most formative in making you tougher. You don't necessarily want them or wish for them, but you keep fighting. That's all we know and that's what we'll do."