SAN DIEGO - In a season of lows, the Chargers hit their lowest point Sunday.
In one of their worst performances, San Diego lost out on its slim chance for a playoff berth after being pounded by the Carolina Panthers 31-7.
"We did a great job of starting fast and getting in a groove of things very early," said quarterback Cam Newton, who completed 19 of 33 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns. "That was very big for us."
Newton's play, two rushing scores by fullback Mike Tolbert and a strong defensive outing boosted the Panthers to a victory before 53,832 at Qualcomm Stadium.
The loss guaranteed that the Chargers will miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season, meaning the job status of head coach Norv Turner, and possibly general manager A.J. Smith, is in serious jeopardy.
"It's definitely tough as a player," Charger safety Corey Lynch said about being eliminated from postseason consideration. "This is one of the hardest working teams I've ever been on. Guys get here early. Guys leave late. They spend more time on the field than they do with their families. To see that type of dedication, and to see the result today, it doesn't match up."
"Obviously, those chances were slim anyway," quarterback Philip Rivers said of making the playoffs. "That wasn't on our minds coming to play this game. We were trying to get two games in a row and see if we could win a game back-to-back. (Making the playoffs) wasn't necessarily our primary focus. The fact that is now finalized is tough."
The Chargers (5-9) scored fewer than 10 points for the third time this season. They lost 27-3 to the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 23 and 7-6 to the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 28. They also managed just 164 yards in offense compared with 372 for the Panthers.
The Panthers' defense sacked Rivers six times, and he also lost two fumbles. He finished with only 121 yards passing and a touchdown while completing 16 of 23 attempts.
Defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson recorded two sacks apiece for the Panthers.
The Panthers (5-9) dominated from the opening kick. They scored on their first three possessions, taking advantage of the Chargers' poor play and ineffectiveness on both sides of the ball, and coasted the rest of the way.
Newton said it helped that the Panthers' coaches, including head coach Ron Rivera, a former Chargers defensive coordinator under Turner, and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, a Chargers tight end coach in 2009 and 2010, were familiar with San Diego's schemes.
"It was very big. It was kind of a gift or a curse, to a degree, because there was a lot of familiarity coming into this game," Newton said. "But it came down to the players executing, and I think we did that offensively, defensively and on special teams to give us the win today."
Carolina outgained the Chargers 251-66 in total yards in the first half, limiting San Diego to five first downs. The Panthers finished the half with 20 first downs.
"We came out, started fast and finished strong," said running back DeAngelo Williams, who caught a touchdown pass and rushed for 93 yards on 22 carries.
San Diego managed to cross into Carolina territory only once in the half, but the drive ended with a Mike Scifres punt.
The Chargers also got an earful from their fans, who loudly booed them as they left the field at halftime, when the Panthers led 24-0.
The Panthers drove 80 yards in 13 plays on their opening drive. A one-yard run by Tolbert, a former Charger, gave Carolina a 7-0 lead with 8:29 left in the first quarter.
A fumble by Rivers, recovered by Carolina defensive tackle Nate Chandler at the Chargers' 21, led to another one-yard scoring run by Tolbert. The Panthers running back strutted into the end zone with 4:54 remaining in the first for a 14-0 Carolina lead, equaling his previous season touchdown total in less than one quarter.
The Panthers took a 21-0 lead with 58 seconds left in the quarter. Newton's pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage, but he still hit Williams for a short completion, and the running back rambled 45 yards for a touchdown.
"It was a screen play. The same one we ran last week, but to the other side," Williams said. "I was able to pluck it out of the air and get down field. There were a lot of great downfield blocks. All I had to do was run."
Carolina added a 33-yard field goal by Graham Gano with six seconds left in the half.
The Panthers opened the second half with a 56-yard scoring drive. Steve Smith caught a four-yard touchdown pass from Newton, increasing the advantage to 31-0.
San Diego's lone score was set up by a Williams fumble that linebacker Larry English recovered at the Chargers' 38-yard line. Rivers connected with tight end Antonio Gates on a nine-yard touchdown pass with 14:02 remaining in the game. That allowed Gates to tie Lance Alworth's club record of 81 touchdown receptions.