SAN DIEGO (AP) — It's been a long time — 2003, to be exact — since the San Diego Chargers have been this irrelevant before Thanksgiving.
Back then, Marty Schottenheimer was their second-year coach, quarterback Drew Brees was benched because he struggled so much and LaDainian Tomlinson was in the third season of Hall of Fame-caliber career.
The Chargers were awful, heading toward an NFL-worst 4-12 finish and their eighth straight year out of the playoffs.
The current Chargers aren't as bad, but are teetering on the brink of oblivion.
The Bolts (4-6) all but ceded the AFC West title to Peyton Manning and the Broncos by losing 30-23 at Denver on Sunday, leaving them with only a desperate shot at a wild card spot.
Quarterback Philip Rivers is under siege behind a shaky line every time he drops back to pass. His turnovers are piling up at an alarming rate. He committed three more at Denver, running his total to 43 in the past 26 games.
This season he's thrown 14 interceptions and lost four fumbles. Last season he was picked off 20 times and lost five fumbles.
Rivers has been sacked 26 times in 10 games, including four times at Denver.
Coach Norv Turner admits he worries about the quarterback's well-being.
"Yeah, I am. I mean, I think for the quarterback position, all you've got to do is look at two weeks ago and there's three or four guys that are laying on the ground with concussions or separate shoulders or whatever," Turner said Monday.
"It's a very demanding position. Some of the things we do from a game-plan standpoint, the things we're calling, the way we're doing things, is to try to limit his exposure and still give ourselves a chance to win the game. We're all very competitive. Philip's a very competitive guy. The way we put a game plan together is very competitive.
"We're used to having success offensively, we're used to scoring a lot of points, we're used to moving the ball. That probably doesn't fit with where we're at right now. When we can we take that aggressive nature, and there's sometimes we can't."
After a 3-1 start, San Diego has lost five of six. On Sunday it hosts AFC North leader Baltimore, which will be without safety Ed Reed, who was suspended for one game by the NFL on Monday for repeated hits to the head and neck area of defenseless players, and captain Ray Lewis, who remains on the injured reserve-return list with a torn triceps.
Besides their on-field struggles, the Chargers are hurting at the gate. With some 10,000 tickets still unsold 72 hours before the deadline, they appear headed toward their second local TV blackout this season. Their final three home games also are in danger of being blacked out.
It's expected that Turner will be fired at season's end if the Chargers miss the playoffs for a third straight season.
Every loss, which magnifies glaring roster deficiencies, brings more calls for general manager A.J. Smith to go, as well.
Team president Dean Spanos has declined repeated requests for interviews.
In past years, Spanos has waited until season's end to make decisions. He brought both Turner and Smith back in January despite the Chargers missing the playoffs for the second straight season after making the postseason four straight years and five of six.
Turner's contract runs through next season, at approximately $3 million, while Smith has two more years on his, at a total of about $4 million. While Spanos might be inclined to fire Turner, he might not be so quick to eat Smith's contract.
Firing Turner and keeping Smith would mean Spanos would give the GM another chance to hire a head coach. Turner was an unpopular choice from the start, perceived as a coach whom Smith could control.
Turner replaced Marty Schottenheimer, who was fired after going 14-2 in 2006 largely because of his icy relationship with the authoritarian Smith. Smith and Schottenheimer reportedly didn't speak for two years.
At some point, Spanos' son, John, is expected to be promoted to oversee the franchise's football operations, although not with the title of general manager. John Spanos currently is director of college scouting.
If Smith is fired, the leading in-house candidate to replace him would be Jimmy Raye, the director of player personnel. Senior executive Randy Mueller, who serves as a national scout, is a former GM of the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints. It's not known if Dean Spanos would tap him for GM.
Smith hasn't returned repeated calls seeking comment on his roster.
The biggest problems are on the offensive line, where Smith hasn't adequately replaced two top players on the left side who were forced out of the game due to injuries, and at wide receiver, where he didn't adequately replace Vincent Jackson after he signed with Tampa Bay for $55 million.
The Chargers released left tackle Marcus McNeill on March 13 after he failed a physical. McNeill, who had a neck injury, didn't get any offers and retired. San Diego felt confident having re-signed Jared Gaither after he played well in the final five games last season.
But Gaither — previously released by both Baltimore and Kansas City — has been injured most of this season. Their third option at left tackle would have been Brandyn Dombrowski, who allowed four sacks in a home loss to the Raiders last season and has missed all of this season with a foot injury.
Left guard Kris Dielman retired March 1 due to the effect of a concussion and was replaced by Tyronne Green.
Due to inadequate protection, Rivers has been scrambling most of the season.
"It was a tough day," Turner said of the Broncos game. "He got hit, he got banged around, he got harassed, but I thought he battled through that and obviously made big plays in the second half."
So how long can Rivers survive?
"It's what's happened to us," Turner said. "It's very difficult. Through a normal game you're going to have some plays that don't come up exactly the way you want it, you're going to have some plays where you have to get rid of the ball quicker than you like, you're going to have some plays where you're under a little bit of pressure. That's the National Football League."
On Sunday, the Chargers had some injuries on the line.
"That put a lot of pressure on the guys up front. That pressure obviously is transferred over to Phillip," Turner said.
Asked how much he misses McNeill and Dielman, Rivers said: "Those are questions that are really hard to answer because you certainly miss guys that played a lot of great ball here for many years. At the same time, I'm glad we have the guys we have. ... That is all the big what-if game. We have gone out and had the chance to win every game we've played in other than the Atlanta game that got away from us right off the bat. We just haven't played well enough to win. Individually I haven't and collectively we haven't as a team."
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