A.J. Smith’s often-expressed mantra is just get to the postseason each year, keep banging on the door and eventually your team will get to the Super Bowl.

Well, Smith’s San Diego Chargers keep knocking on the playoff door, but nobody ever answers.

The Smith-era Chargers have been to the playoffs five times in six seasons and that Super Bowl invitation remains more elusive than the team’s quest for a new stadium. The Chargers were sent packing by the offensively challenged New York Jets 17-14 on Sunday, erasing all the feel-good accomplishments of a 13-3 season.

Worse is that Sunday’s loss marked the third time in six seasons that the Chargers went one-and-done with a home playoff game. They lost at home to the Jets in the 2004 postseason and the New England Patriots two seasons later before this season’s epic collapse.

Nate Kaeding, who has never had to borrow basketball great Jerry West’s “Mr. Clutch” moniker, went 0-for-3 on field goals in the three-point loss. There’s no issue with Kaeding missing from 57 yards at the end of the half, but those misses from 36 and 40 yards were killers.

The final miss, which sailed wide right, came with the Chargers down 10 points with 4:38 remaining and kept them facing a two-score deficit. That miss basically kicked away the Chargers’ chances of reaching the AFC Championship Game, where the Jets are now headed to face the Indianapolis Colts.

Kaeding might be the biggest goat but he’s not the only one. Quarterback Philip Rivers was intercepted twice with the second one being the play that fueled the Jets’ path to victory.

Backed up on his own 5-yard line with the Chargers leading 7-3 late in the third quarter, Rivers threw a poor pass midway between Antonio Gates (who wasn’t even looking) and Vincent Jackson. But Jets safety Jim Leonhard was looking right at the football and intercepted the pass and returned it to the Chargers’ 16.

That set up Mark Sanchez’s 2-yard scoring pass to Dustin Keller to put the Jets ahead to stay. Midway through the fourth quarter, New York’s lead grew to 17-7 when rookie Shonn Greene (128 yards rushing) broke through Eric Weddle’s shoddy tackle attempt en route to a 53-yard touchdown run.

At that point, it was clear the season would soon be ending, particularly since the Jets led the NFL in fewest points allowed. The Chargers did score a late touchdown but were unsuccessful on recovering the onside kick and the Jets got the first down they needed to run out the clock.

And just like that, another Chargers’ playoff collapse was upon us. The window is rapidly closing on this group of players and the organization has failed to take advantage of all these postseason visits. The Chargers, said to annually possess one of the most talented rosters in the NFL over the last half-dozen years, have a measly 3-5 playoff record to show for it.

This was probably LaDainian Tomlinson’s final game in a Chargers’ uniform and he looked like an old warhorse ready to be put out to pasture against the Jets with 24 total yards on 15 touches (12 rushing attempts to go with three receptions for zero yards). Darren Sproles gained 31 yards on back-to-back carries in the first half but even that wasn’t enough to clue in Chargers coach Norv Turner that he had the wrong back in the game against the NFL’s top-rated defense.

Of course, nobody should be surprised that a Turner-coached team fell short. The Jets did a better job at halftime adjustments and the Chargers made a slew of mistakes that included 10 penalties for 87 yards to go with converting just 4-of-13 third downs. About all that was missing was a Marlon McCree fumble after an interception (think of that painful playoff loss to the Patriots).

The last time the Chargers had a mistake-filled performance in a home playoff loss, the head coach (Marty Schottenheimer) was fired. Somehow there’s some irony in there that the Jets offensive coordinator is Brian Schottenheimer, son of Marty, and that head coach Rex Ryan was passed over as Chargers coach in favor of Turner.

Regardless, a locker room of players that likes to brag about how great they are, is adding a new tag to go with that most talented team in the NFL label. It’s called the “NFL’s Biggest Underachievers.”

A team can keep knocking on the playoff door all it wants but if it doesn’t have the toughness and heart to deal with the pressure-packed world of the NFL postseason, then that knock never gets answered.

And that’s what Smith, the Chargers general manager, can ponder now. The window of opportunity is nearly shut and the door never opens. Eventually, an era ends with nothing to show for it.

The Chargers are approaching that point after their latest playoff catastrophe. The Don Coryell-era Chargers – who went to two AFC title games to this group’s one – always thought next year would be the year too.

But next year never came.

Sometimes the door just isn’t going to be answered. The Chargers should know the drill pretty good by now.


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