SAN DIEGO (AP) — The San Diego Chargers can feel good about overachieving and making it to the divisional playoffs when hardly anyone thought they’d make the postseason under rookie coach Mike McCoy.
They also go into the offseason kicking themselves a bit over lost opportunities.
Sunday’s 24-17 loss at Denver was a microcosm of their season — a slow start followed by a frantic finish. This time, though, it wasn’t enough and Peyton Manning and the Broncos held on to avenge their only home loss of the regular season.
San Diego won its final four regular season games — and five of six — to sneak into the playoffs before winning a wild-card game at Cincinnati.
“We were a force to be reckoned with at the end of the year,” Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle said.
The Chargers made it to the playoffs despite being 5-7 at one point following dismal defeats at Washington — when they could have won it in regulation before losing in overtime — and at Miami.
They got there despite the previous coach, Norv Turner, predicting on the day he got fired that the Bolts were more than a year away from getting back to the playoffs.
At times it sure seemed like Turner was right. But then the Chargers stunned the Chiefs in Kansas City, got back injured linebackers Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram, and then won their final four games — while getting help from other teams — to move on to January.
“It took us a while but we found this chemistry,” tight end Antonio Gates said.
The first offseason change came Monday when offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was hired as Tennessee’s coach. Whisenhunt was with the Chargers this season after being fired as Arizona’s coach, and helped quarterback Philip Rivers stage a bounce-back season. Whisenhunt was offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers when they won the Super Bowl after the 2005 season.
Rivers debunked the theory that Whisenhunt interviewing for three head coaching jobs in three days last week contributed to the Chargers’ loss Sunday.
San Diego was conservative in falling behind 17-0, and didn’t open up its offense until the fourth quarter. Running back Ryan Mathews, whose strong running in December helped the Bolts get to January, carried only five times for 26 yards before leaving with an ankle injury he sustained on Dec. 22 against Oakland.
“I think that’s crazy, honestly,” Rivers said. “He was all-in all week, all everything. There was nothing we did differently. It’s not like he was, `Hey, somebody else run this meeting, I’ve got something else to do.’ He handled it like a pro. This guy has been in this league 20 years. He’s been a head coach, he’s won Super Bowls. He knows how to handle his business. I don’t think by any means that had anything to do with anything we did offensively.”
Quarterbacks coach Frank Reich is expected to replace Whisenhunt, although McCoy would say only that he has a list of candidates.
“Frank will be great, if that were to be the case,” Rivers said. “In the offense he was in the time he was with Jim Kelly and what they ran in Buffalo, there’s no doubt he can do it. Obviously, his coaching experience over the last five, six, seven years, if that were to be the route, we’d all be very confident in Frank.”
McCoy said the Broncos played and coached better than the Chargers.
“They ran their system. I don’t think there were any surprises at all,” McCoy said. “They beat us and give them credit. That is a very good football team and they scored more points than we did.”
Ultimately, San Diego’s season came down to Manning completing a 20-yard pass to Julius Thomas on third-and-17 from the Broncos’ 20-yard line, the first of three third-down conversions on Denver’s final possession Sunday. The Chargers had preached communication and not allowing big plays, and then failed at both.
“When the game is on the line, as a player, if you’re going to go down, you’d rather have them earn it and not necessarily give them something,” Weddle said. “It just goes back to everyone on the same page of communicating and some guys didn’t get the call or have the right call and it’s just unfortunate that we weren’t able to be communicated on at that specific time.
“But those things happen and we didn’t overcome it and it’s unfortunate because if we can get the ball back, I’m sure we would have scored and looking back on it, that’s the biggest thing that you hang your head on because, as a safety, you’re communicating out and you just can’t get it to the other side. But that’s on all of us.”
(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)