INGLEWOOD, Calif. — For maybe two blissful minutes after the final whistle, the Los Angeles Chargers actually thought they had something to celebrate.
Justin Herbert had thrown an end-zone fade pass to Donald Parham Jr., who was inbounds with the ball in his hands before he fell to the turf with no time on the clock.
The officials raised their arms for a touchdown, and the Chargers went nuts. After a season of historic collapses and heartbreaking defeats, the Bolts had a stunning comeback victory over the Las Vegas Raiders.
“We were geeked up on the sideline, thinking that was it, and we did what we had to do to put the game away,” Chargers running back Kalen Ballage said Sunday. "And out of nowhere, we weren't even paying attention, and we saw them celebrating. We were, like, ‘What? What are you talking about? What’s going on?’”
Ballage's existential questions could have been about nearly everything that's happened to the Chargers this year.
In 2020, this long-suffering franchise's propensity for excruciating, histrionic losses has become positively surreal.
One week after giving up the winning touchdown on the final snap in Denver, the Chargers lost by scoring the apparent winning touchdown on the final snap — only to have it taken away.
Parham had bobbled the ball on the way down. The call on the field was reversed.
The points came off the SoFi Stadium scoreboard, and the Raiders won 31-26 Sunday. The Chargers had their sixth loss of the season — all by a combined 24 points.
“I don’t want to find out how many we can take,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said.
The Chargers reacted to the reversal with the miserable resignation that feels like this franchise's default setting now.
Although their talent is undeniable around one of the NFL's most exciting young quarterbacks, the Chargers are also a jaw-dropping 2-15 in one-score games since early last season. They've compiled an epic list of blown leads, late-game mistakes and crucial failures in pressure-packed moments.
This loss ended with two failed fades from the Raiders 4 after a gritty 71-yard drive engineered by Herbert and his gifted receivers.
Herbert's first throw went to Mike Williams, who not only failed to wrestle it free from inexperienced Vegas cornerback Isaiah Johnson, but also got injured on the play, forcing the big wideout to miss the final snap.
Herbert had run-pass options on both final plays. With 1 second on the clock, he chose to throw basically the same pass to Parham, the 6-foot-8 tight end whose first two NFL catches had been for touchdowns.
Parham had the ball until he didn't, and the officials eventually reversed their call.
Johnson, who had just 30 defensive snaps all season for the Raiders before Sunday, watched the Chargers' celebrations with a raised eyebrow.
“They think it’s still complete, so they think they won the game,” Johnson said. “I know in my mind that if that camera shows it, then we won, (and) I’m going to celebrate before they even know it, because they were celebrating before they even got the final verdict. I know what actually happened.”
The Chargers argued the reversal with the halfhearted frustration of a team that feels like it's battling larger cosmic forces than any officiating crew.
“I don’t know if it was the right call or not,” Lynn said. “Certainly I didn’t like it. I thought he caught the ball. He had a knee and a foot inbounds. I thought it was a touchdown.”
Added Herbert: “I don’t know enough about what’s a catch and what’s not a catch to make that call, but selfishly I would have loved for that to be a touchdown.”
It's tough to remember that the Chargers' season of epic losses actually began with a nail-biting victory: The Bengals missed a 31-yard field goal with 2 seconds to play in Cincinnati, sending LA to a 16-13 win on Sept. 13.
Since then, the Chargers' failures have been increasingly operatic and increasingly unbelievable.
They blew an 11-point lead and lost in overtime to Kansas City in their SoFi Stadium opener. They had a last-gasp chance to beat Carolina, but messed up a hook-and-ladder play that looked likely to produce a winning touchdown.
The Chargers then blew 16-point leads at Tampa Bay and at New Orleans, failing to close out two solid opponents in painful fashion. They blew yet another 16-point lead against Jacksonville, but rallied to beat the woeful Jaguars anyway.
And then Los Angeles blew a 21-point lead last week at Denver, becoming the first team in NFL history to waste leads of at least 16 points in four consecutive defeats.
Hey, at least the Chargers didn't blow a late lead in this one: They fell behind by 11 midway through the third quarter and entered the fourth down eight.
Since his debut in Week 2, Herbert has passed for 2,146 yards with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. Because he plays for the Chargers, the rookie's record is 1-6.
But Herbert isn't giving up, and he hasn't yet been bent by the weight of his franchise's failures.
“No one is enjoying this, and everyone is working hard and doing their best,” Herbert said. “Things are going to change. We’re really close. ... There’s no magic words that are going to change what’s happening. It’s about lining up and getting in the dirt and doing the work, and that’s what’s going to happen.”
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Greg Beacham, The Associated Press