If you were a Chargers fan watching Monday night, you almost had to know what was coming.
It didn’t matter that the game’s outcome was in doubt. You could have been old or young, from San Diego, Greater Los Angeles, or parts in between, a lifelong fan or one who recently joined the bandwagon.
The outcome always seems the same for this organization.
The Chargers once again hung tough against an extremely talented opponent, only to watch a handful of plays go the other way in their 20-17 loss to the Cowboys. LA dominated for much of the second half yet fell to 2-3 and third place in the AFC West.
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Their inability to execute in crunch time is baffling. The Chargers have arguably the game’s most talented roster, with an MVP candidate at quarterback in Justin Herbert, an offense loaded with skill-position stars, and a defense full of Pro Bowlers like Derwin James, Khalil Mack, and Joey Bosa.
Yet, all that has amounted to a 21-19 record in three seasons under coach Brandon Staley, who dropped his fifth straight decision by three points or fewer and is 6-10 as Chargers coach in such games.
“It was a high-level game between two teams that are really, really good,” Staley said postgame. “We were right there in the end, but we’ve just got to put this one behind us and get moving.”
They held the ball for 17-and-a-half minutes in the second half yet only managed 10 points. There were failed rushing attempts, crushing penalties, and missed throws from Herbert — notably an egregious overthrow on a should-be touchdown to Keenan Allen in the fourth.
“I missed a couple of receivers, threw some bad passes,” Herbert said. “When we have those explosive opportunities, we have to capitalize on those. That’s a really good defense we’re going up against, and I can’t miss those like that.”
On defense, there were the customary missed tackles, blown assignments, and inability to get off the field on third down — all on the same play when Dak Prescott found Tony Pollard for a game-changing, 60-yard conversion on third-and-11 on the first play of the fourth quarter.
“The throw to Pollard is one of those fluke plays off a scramble,” Staley said. “You give credit to Dak. He made a big play there.”
What wasn’t a fluke was the Cowboys were 4-of-5 on third down in the fourth quarter. They converted three of third-and-six or longer on the final drive that netted their game-winning field goal — including a third-and-18 aided by a defensive holding penalty on Michael Davis.
“I thought we were really good most of the night on third down,” said Staley, whose team stopped Dallas on eight of 13 third-down attempts. “Dak made a couple of plays on that last drive, and it hurt us.
“We didn’t make the plays down the stretch to win on defense.”
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It’s not as though Dallas coach Mike McCarthy is a master at outfoxing his opposition. But Staley outsmarted himself again by not rewarding the LA offense for its 13-play, seven-plus minute drive with a game-tying field goal. It instead netted nothing.
If you look at the box score instead of watching the Chargers, it all looks good. They have a plus-three point differential, are in the top 10 in every offensive category, have a plus-five turnover margin, and are tied for third in the NFL in sacks.
Yet somehow, LA is still a sub-.500 team. It could easily be 5-0 with victories over the Cowboys and Dolphins, against whom it lost 36-34 in Week 1.
Instead, the Chargers are wallowing amid the muck in 13th place in the AFC with a road date against the Chiefs coming up.
If you’re a Chargers fan, that probably isn’t a shock.