Another pratfall ends Bolts’ playoff chances

Suffice it to say that Norv Turner didn’t receive a game ball
after this stinker.

On a fittingly glum, misty afternoon, the San Diego Chargers’
slim playoff hopes were extinguished by Mike Tolbert, Cam Newton
and the Carolina Panthers.

Although realistically eliminated weeks ago, the punchless Bolts
finally got the mathematical heave-ho in a 31-7 pratfall
Sunday.

The game was played before thousands of empty seats, and the
crowd at times seemed too indifferent to boo.

Tolbert scored twice against his former team and DeAngelo
Williams turned a tipped pass from Cam Newton into a 45-yard
touchdown reception.

Carolina (5-9) won consecutive games for the first time since
last December.

The Chargers (5-9) will miss the playoffs for the third straight
season and clinched their first losing season since 2003, when they
were an NFL-worst 4-12. Turner is expected to be fired at season’s
end, most likely along with general manager A.J. Smith.

A week earlier, team president Dean Spanos presented Turner with
a game ball after the Chargers kept alive their faint playoff hopes
with a 34-24 win against the Steelers, their first victory in 15
regular-season games in Pittsburgh.

Back home, the Chargers simply couldn’t get out of their own
way.

”It’s never easy when you lose,” Turner said. ”Being out
there and feeling like there wasn’t a lot you could do to change
the circumstance, that’s frustrating.”

It was another miserable day for San Diego’s sputtering
offense.

Philip Rivers was 16 of 23 for only 121 yards, his fifth-lowest
total as a starter. He fumbled four times, losing two. He has 22
turnovers this season and 47 since the start of the 2011
season.

San Diego was outgained 372 yards to 164.

”We didn’t execute at a high level and they outplayed us,”
Rivers said. ”When you get down 21-0, it’s hard. We tried to
continue to mix the run. They played us well in the secondary.
”There weren’t a whole lot of places just to go with it quick,
either.”

River was sacked six times.

”The conditions of a bunch of big defensive linemen hitting him
as he was getting in the pocket, the conditions were tough,”
Turner said. ”Our guys had a tough time blocking their guys. Once
you get 14-0, it maximized the matchup in a negative manner and it
was fairly obvious we struggled to do much with that matchup. You
play in their hands in terms of the things we were capable of doing
and we just weren’t able to overcome it.”

San Diego lost for the eighth time in 10 games, and dropped its
third straight home game.

The only bright spot for the Chargers came when Antonio Gates
tied Hall of Famer Lance Alworth’s club record with his 81st career
touchdown catch, a 9-yarder from Rivers with 14:02 left. Gates just
got his second foot down before going out of bounds.

That score was set up when the Chargers got their best starting
field position of the day, on the Carolina 38, when Larry English
recovered Williams’ fumble.

Until then, the Chargers had run only two plays from scrimmage
in Panthers territory, reaching the 44.

Gates’ TD allowed the Chargers to avoid their first shutout
since a 34-0 loss at Kansas City on Oct. 31, 1999, a span of 211
regular-season games.

Newton was 19 of 33 for 231 yards and two touchdowns as the
Panthers followed up their 30-20 upset victory against Atlanta with
their first consecutive victories since beating Houston and Tampa
Bay last December.

Tolbert, who left San Diego as a free agent in March, capped
Carolina’s first two drives with 1-yard scoring runs.

Tolbert doubled his touchdown production this season. His two
touchdowns in a span of 3:35 were one more than San Diego running
back Ryan Mathews has this season. Mathews left with a shoulder
injury early in the second quarter and didn’t return.

Tolbert leaped over the top of the pile for his first TD to cap
the game’s opening drive, which went 80 yards in 13 plays.

Rivers dropped back to pass on the Chargers’ first possession
and the ball flew out of his hand for a fumble that was recovered
by Nate Chandler at the San Diego 21. Four plays later, Tolbert
went in standing up to make it 14-0.

After forcing the Chargers to punt, the Panthers needed six
plays to go 72 yards and take a 21-0 lead. On second-and-10 from
the Chargers 45, Newton’s pass was tipped by Jarret Johnson.
Williams plucked it out of the air and took it all the way in for a
touchdown.

The Panthers piled on with Graham Gano’s 33-yard field goal with
six seconds before halftime and Newton’s 4-yard scoring pass to
Steve Smith midway through the third quarter for a 31-0 lead.

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