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Nick Canepa column: It's tough to win on the road when you're at home

Nov. 6, 2011
 

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GREEN BAY, Calif. -- This was a football game that raced away from hackneyed film school melodrama to Hitchcockian thriller. It suddenly went from predictable to goosebump in a most unlikely theater.

Hercules would have gone all Barney Fife over this one. He would have wimped out, traded his loin cloth for a salt-and-pepper suit, retreated and called in sick from this labor the Chargers were assigned by the football Gods.

They had to try and beat the Packers in the hostile, rainy environment of Qualcomm Stadium, with Green Bay players urging the thousands in their wandering flock to make noise when the visiting team that happened to be playing at home was on the field.

It wasn’t bad enough the Chargers had to meet the World Champions on Sunday coming off two straight defeats. Battered, they had to play the unbeaten Packers, fresh off a bye, in one of their 30 homes away from home.

And the local kids tried, they tried like hell, but they just weren’t up to it, doing their best to hold onto the rope before letting go at the end and losing 45-38.

It was a terribly entertaining football game, fun to watch, full of the unusual and the usual -- one of the latter being the Chargers’ inability to win a big game against a good team.

But they played their 4-4 butts off, tell you that, and the loss kept them in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC West with Oakland and Kansas City, also Sunday losers. This division has taken on the look of 2010 NFC West, which is not a sunrise by Maxfield Parrish.

They proved they can play with the best team in the NFL, for what that’s worth. But another poor first quarter by quarterback Philip Rivers, which saw him toss two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns -- by DBs Charlie Peprah and Tramon Williams -- helped create a 21-7 Green Bay mountain, and the Chargers didn’t quite have enough gear to get to the top.

Rivers settled down. He would complete 26 of 48 passes for 385 yards and four scores -- three to Vincent Jackson and another to tight end Antonio Gates -- but most of it came too late. For the first time in his career, he threw three picks, the third coming in the final, desperate moments when San Diego had turned a 45-24 yawner with 10:27 to play into a thriller. He also made a terrible decision on the penultimate drive, throwing to nobody while in the pocket and picking up a deserved intentional grounding penalty.

“I gave ‘em 14 points,” Rivers would say.

Maybe the Packers would have won anyway. Maybe their offense, led by brilliant quarterback Aaron Rodgers -- it’s impossible to imagine a QB playing at a higher level -- would have found a way, what with his receivers making one fabulous catch after another. But they would have had to work harder.

Leave it to the Chargers to find an innovative -- if destructive -- way to keep Green Bay’s offense off the field, which was the trick coming in. And the defense responded with what was, by far, its best effort of the year.

Rodgers constantly was pressured, sacked four times, twice by linebacker Antwan Barnes -- and it easily could have been more had Rodgers been a statue. He constantly avoided disaster with his legs.

“We covered them up pretty well,” safety Eric Weddle said. “He made unbelievable throws a lot of the time while getting pressured, getting hit. I think our corners and our safeties covered their butts off today.”

For certain, the front seven played its best game, and the secondary often had Rodgers hopelessly looking around. Don’t go by the numbers, the 368 total yards the Packers gained. They earned every stinking one.

Don’t go by the 460 yards the Chargers amassed against a defense that is not of world champion caliber. Tailback Mike Tolbert, a terrific mud runner, ran for 83 yards and caught four passes for 59 more. Gates caught 8 passes for 96 yards and a score. Jackson caught 7 for 141 yards and 3 scores.

Don’t go by the numbers.

“That team’s won 14 games in a row,” Rivers said. “We know what yards get you -- 9-7, like we were last year (when they led The League in offense and defense).”

Forget Dallas. Green Bay is the Real America’s Team. Everywhere the Packers go, they have at least a partial home, so there has to be some comfort level. But the Chargers, coming off a short week following disastrous defeat at Kansas City -- it’s shorter now, what with the Raiders coming in Thursday night -- went after it. They even scored on their first drive.

“You are playing a team that you can’t give couple of scores,“ coach Norv Turner said. “Our guys did a great job fighting back, competing and giving ourselves a chance in all three phases.”

All they can do is keep playing. Not even Rivers is frustrated.

“I’m not frustrated one bit,” he said. “I’m excited.”

It’s tough to win on the road when you’re at home against the best team in football.

Nick Canepa writes for the San Diego Union Tribune

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