SAN DIEGO (AP) — There are no more false hopes surrounding the hapless San Diego Chargers.
Done in by Mike Tolbert, one of the many players authoritarian general manager A.J. Smith has allowed to leave over the years, the Chargers were eliminated from playoff contention for the third straight year in a dismal 31-7 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
The Chargers (5-9) clinched their first losing season since 2003.
There were thousands of empty seats at Qualcomm Stadium. The fans in attendance even booed a public service announcement on the big screen featuring turnover-prone Philip Rivers.
Linebacker Takeo Spikes admitted: "I think bottom line, we didn't show up."
All that's left are two meaningless games before the expected firing of coach Norv Turner and likely Smith.
THIS IS A STORY UPDATE. For an earlier version, read below.
SAN DIEGO (AP) — Mike Tolbert, Cam Newton and the rest of the Carolina Panthers came to San Diego with no chance of making the playoffs.
Now the San Diego Chargers are out of the playoff picture, as well.
Tolbert scored twice against his former team and DeAngelo Williams turned a tipped pass from Cam Newton into a 45-yard touchdown reception to lead the Panthers to a 31-7 victory against the punchless Chargers on Sunday.
Carolina (5-9) won consecutive games for the first time since last December.
"It's a great feeling to be able to score the first two touchdowns back here," Tolbert said. "It's indescribable."
The Chargers (5-9) clinched their first losing season since 2003, when they were an NFL-worst 4-12. Coach Norv Turner is expected to be fired at season's end, most likely along with general manager A.J. Smith. They will miss the playoffs for the third straight season.
The Chargers did a face-plant a week after upsetting the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-24 to remain mathematically, if not realistically, alive in the playoff picture.
Some of that might have had to do with Tolbert extensively briefing the defense about his former team.
Also, Panthers coach Ron Rivera was with the Chargers from 2007-2010, first as inside linebackers coach and then defensive coordinator. Also, Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is a former Chargers tight ends coach.
"Now that the game is over, I can go ahead and say it. I gave a lot of tips to our defense about their offense, the keys, the checks, the audibles and stuff like that." Tolbert said. "I think that helped. I think they had less than 200 yards of offense. Our defense played great, so it definitely helped."
Tolbert, who left San Diego as a free agent in March, capped Carolina's first two drives with 1-yard scoring runs.
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.
"They don't think a little fat man can jump but I can definitely get up," Tolbert said.
His second TD was set up when Philip Rivers lost a fumble. Tolbert went in standing up for a 14-0 lead.
Both times he did his TD dance, the Dougie.
"That's in my nature. I'm a guy that loves to have fun when I'm playing games, so I'm going to dance regardless," he said.
"You can't critique that," said Newton, who cut his right index finger just before halftime and twisted an ankle, but said he'll be OK. "He has a wild range of moves in his repertoire. I don't think even he knows what he's going to do."
Tolbert said his split from the Chargers wasn't about money.
"Some things happened between myself and the front office that I'd rather not get into," said Tolbert, who's on a long list of players shown the door by Smith, in danger of losing his job because of glaring roster deficiencies. "Let's say things didn't happen the way we thought they were going to happen."
The running back said he played with "a whole bag of chips" on his shoulder.
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 broke his left collarbone in the second quarter. He broke his right collarbone in the exhibition opener.
"Anytime you know about the personnel it helps you game-plan, especially on defense," Rivera said. "Knowing about Gates, knowing about Malcom Floyd, knowing about Philip, that was huge."
Said Newton: "It was kind of a gift or a curse to a degree because there was a lot of familiarity coming into this game with a lot of coaches on each other's staff before, knowing what they were trying to get done. But it came down to the players executing."
Rivers lost another fumble in the fourth quarter, his 22nd turnover this season and 47th in less than two full seasons. He was sacked six times. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson had two each.
San Diego lost for the eighth time in 10 games, and dropped its third straight home game.
"I wasn't thinking about the playoff scenarios," Turner said. "When you are not able to handle the things you have to do on a day-to-day basis or game to game, it's hard to consider yourself a playoff team."
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.
The Chargers had kept their faint playoff hopes alive with a 34-24 upset win at Pittsburgh a week earlier, but couldn't get out of their own way at home.
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.
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.
Rivers was 16 of 23 for only 121 yards, his fifth-lowest total as a starter. San Diego was outgained 372 yards to 164.
NOTES: Turner's son, Scott, is offensive quality control coach for the Panthers. ... Carolina G Zack Williams injured his knee during pregame warmups. ... Attendance was announced as 53,832 but there were fewer than that in the 70,000-seat stadium. It was the third straight TV blackout in Southern California and the fourth this season. ... At 2-5, the Bolts will have their first home losing record since 2003, when they were 2-6.
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