SAN DIEGO (AP) — 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.