JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The moral of this story is that sometimes it's better to fall down before you get tripped up.
The subject of the story is the San Diego Chargers, who continued to do the dance of inconsistency Sunday against Jacksonville in what was ultimately a 24-17 defeat at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium. Last season, San Diego was 14-2 and on the edge of going to the AFC Championship Game if only safety Marlon McCree had simply fallen down after intercepting a Tom Brady pass in the fourth quarter of the playoffs.
Now the Chargers are the picture of a team struggling to figure out how to win. That was obvious to anyone who listened to Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman after the game. Merriman was passionate, to the point that he was nearly hyperventilating as he spoke.
"You gotta hate to lose in this game," said Merriman, who used the term "hate to lose" like a mantra during his postgame talk. Asked if his teammates had that type of disdain, Merriman made his feelings clear.
"Not right now, not enough," he said. "This game is played with violence. The game is played with an attitude. I have no friends on the field out there, so don't talk to me. You have to go out there and play aggressive for 60 minutes. That's how you win a football game and that's how you play the game. You have to want it and you have to hate to lose.
"We can't just click it on at a certain point, play good the first half, better the second half. If we don't play 60 minutes of football then what happened today will happen again. … We were playing a team that said it was going to out-physical us, that came out with two tight ends and said they were going to run. I don't think it was a mystery."
When asked if he was upset, Merriman breathed hard again to prevent an explosion and said, "That's an understatement." Of course, Merriman, who had one tackle and one quarterback pressure, and the rest of the Chargers defense were pretty understated all game. San Diego came up with zero turnovers and zero sacks.
But if what Merriman said sounds like desperation, it's hard to argue. Certainly, Chargers star running back LaDainian Tomlinson wasn't going to take issue with it.
"It's human nature to get complacent and think everything is going to come easy," Tomlinson said. "Shawne may have a point there. Some guys might take losing for what it is like, 'We lost, but we still get paid.' As long as we have that attitude, you will be losers. … I didn't see that as a problem here, but if other guys start to say it, you have to look for it."
The Chargers, who entered this season with huge expectations, have gotten tripped up time and again this season. They opened the season with a strong win over Chicago, then lost three straight. They then averaged 34 points over a three-game winning streak before getting ripped for an NFL-record 296 yards rushing by Minnesota rookie Adrian Peterson. They held on to beat Indianapolis last week, then never really had much of a chance against Jacksonville.
"We knew we weren't going to go 14-2 again and that wasn't the goal this year," said quarterback Philip Rivers, who did a pretty impressive Nuke LaLoosh impression on his way to going 22 of 40 for 309 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. "The goal was not to be 5-5 at this point, either."
Somewhere in between was a reasonable expectation, even with the massive coaching overhaul that occurred in the offseason. Instead, the Chargers are a team that doesn't seem capable of determining its future.
On Jacksonville's first three drives, the Jaguars converted five of eight third- or fourth-down situations. Nothing fancy, just one percentage play after another. Before the Chargers knew it, they were behind by a pair of touchdowns and had to throw constantly to play catch-up.
Of course, the plight of the Chargers ignores the play of the Jaguars, who improved to 7-3 with the victory and played a very effective game. Jacksonville, which trails injury-depleted Indianapolis (8-2) by one game in the AFC South, played pretty much mistake-free football, which is its forte.
As Merriman mentioned, Jacksonville came out in a one-back, two-tight end offense for much of the game. The goal was clear: Run the ball and keep the explosive players from the Chargers, like Merriman, from making any plays that might hurt them.
The passing attack by the Jags was little different, featuring one three-step drop after another and mostly safe throws by quarterback David Garrard. Of Garrard's 15 completions, seven were to the tight end position.
The thinking of the Jaguars was made obvious early in the second half. Nursing a seven-point lead and facing a third-and-11 situation, Jacksonville had Garrard lined up in the shot gun, but took no chances.
Running back Maurice Jones-Drew was the primary receiver in the pattern, running a circle route out of the backfield. Before he went downfield, Jones-Drew chipped Merriman. In short, the first idea was to stop Merriman, then worry about a possible first down.
In fairness, the Jaguars took a couple of solid gambles in the first half on the way to a 17-3 lead at the break, successfully going for it twice on fourth-and-1 in the first half. Still, the Jaguars were all about ball control, as their 37-to-24 run/pass ratio will testify to. If the Jaguars had played any closer to the vest, they would have been wearing corsets.
"That's what we've been seeing all year from every team," San Diego nose tackle Jamal Williams said. "People adjust to you in this league, they figure you out."
Still, one Chargers player gave the Jags a measured sense of respect.
"They're pretty good for what they are," the player said. Translation: The Jaguars are a playoff contender, but they're a long way from fitting themselves for championship rings. That may be even more the case after Jacksonville lost middle linebacker Mike Peterson to a broken hand for a minimum of five weeks, if not the remainder of the season.
Unfortunately for the Chargers, they look even further from that goal right now at 5-5, even if that's good enough for first place in the AFC West. The frustration for the Chargers is that they have championship talent in a roster loaded with great athletes and impact players.
That was evidenced by the near-comeback they put together in the fourth quarter. The Chargers were in Jacksonville territory four times in the fourth, but finished with one touchdown, one loss of the ball on downs and two interceptions of Rivers.
Appropriately, the final interception was a chilling reminder of last season. Jags safety Sammy Knight made a tumbling grab of Rivers' final pass with 1:26 to play. For a moment, Knight tried to get to his feet for a return. He then quickly thought better of it and fell to the ground.
He didn't take any chance of getting tripped up.