The NFL playoffs begin Saturday and I just can’t find what time the San Diego Chargers play.

Oh, I get it – they must have a first-round bye. Oops, wrong there too.

So the Chargers didn’t make the playoffs? How could that be?

San Diego coach Norv Turner pronounced this team as the best in his four years as coach prior to the season.

I see the Chargers finally had an unblemished January record. Sure it was only 1-0 but I bet Norval spends half the offseason boasting about beating Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos in Week 17.

Unfortunately, there were seven weeks where the Chargers couldn’t beat their opponents. A 9-7 record against the soft schedule they had is pretty embarrassing.

Got to give Turner and the Chargers credit for this dubious distinction: San Diego went 0-5 against the Oakland Raiders (two losses), Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams and Cincinnati Bengals.

That is pretty tough to do – you really have to be an underachieving team to pull that off.

Turner also has another streak going – the Chargers won two playoff games his first season, one playoff game in his second year, zero playoff games in his third season and missed the playoffs in his fourth.

That is one horrible decline. What’s next for Year No. 5?

A losing record?

Turner isn’t the only person to blame for the Chargers spending January the way the Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills annually do. Look upstairs to the second-story balcony and find silver-haired general manager A.J. Smith.

Smith was more interested in defeating two of his better players in contract negotiations – receiver Vincent Jackson and offensive tackle Marcus McNeill – than giving his below-average head coach the best talent possible to beat the teams on the schedule.

The Chargers started 2-5 with poor special teams play and running back fumbles being the two biggest factors. But who says they don’t start 4-3 – remember, their early-season schedule was very weak – if they had settled the disputes with Jackson and McNeill in August?

That two-game swing is the difference between playing this weekend and watching eight other teams play on television.

Smith also has a ridiculous habit of putting players on the Roster Exempt List – a move that means the player has to sit out three games once he reports. He did that with tight end Antonio Gates in 2005 and the Chargers ended up missing the playoffs by one game.

He did it again this season with McNeill and Jackson and the Chargers again missed the playoffs by one game. Hmmmm.

Other teams don’t operate in this fashion. They work out their difficulties with the player, immediately welcome him back into the fold, and get back to focusing on how to beat their opponents.

In San Diego, every player in the locker room is reminded for three weeks that the general manager upstairs will try to break your career if you don’t bow down to him. When marginal players see Pro Bowlers treated in such a manner, it leaves an indelible impression. (Hint – not a good one).

It’s too early to predict whether or not the Chargers rebound in 2011 (I’d prefer to wait and see if we are going to have an NFL season first). But I did have San Diego winning the division in 2010 and the Kansas City Chiefs overtaking the Chargers in 2011.

I see the Chiefs had a different timetable. Kansas City is playing in the playoffs this weekend. Yeah, the Chiefs are AFC West champs.

The other two AFC West teams that missed the playoffs – the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos – will have new coaches next season. Raiders coach Tom Cable lost his job despite going 6-0 in divisional games.

Meanwhile, Turner isn’t under the slightest bit of heat from the organization after his self-described best team failed to make the playoffs. He did pull out the scapegoat card – predictably – by firing special teams coach Steve Crosby.

But all that production from quarterback Philip Rivers went for naught in 2010. You have to start wondering if Rivers is destined to be the next Dan Fouts, the Hall of Fame quarterback who never played in a Super Bowl during 15 seasons with the Chargers.

The Chargers are heading in the wrong direction and it’s hard to have any confidence that Turner and Smith will get things back on the upswing. That AFC title game appearance from three years ago suddenly feels like a long time ago.

Particularly with the playoffs starting Saturday – and the Chargers ranking among the NFL’s 20 also-rans.

Deservedly so.

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