The Fork has turned into a matter of great debate, at least on my Twitter account. Miami Dolphins fans can't believe the New York Jets haven't been eliminated. Washington Redskins fans feel like they were Forked too early (we'll know by next week). The Fork is a mysterious creature. It has faith that at least one of the three 4-7 teams in the AFC (Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, San Diego Chargers) will rally.
An 8-8 team might very well get into the playoffs. Theoretically, the Chargers have the best chance of the 4-7 teams. They have outscored their opponents this year. They play the two teams directly in front of them in the next two weeks: the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers. They have forgiving home games against the Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders. They have a quality quarterback, in theory.
We're comfortable killing the Chargers because they would find a way to blow it even if they beat the Bengals and Steelers. This team can't handle success. Ray Rice's fourth-and-29 conversion in the Chargers' overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens was like watching a team's season end in real time.
What went wrong
Philip Rivers' strong end to last year gave hope that he wasn't experiencing a mid-career crisis. But his tendency to throw backbreaking interceptions has continued. His game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was instructive. He played an outstanding game overall, but two forced throws in the fourth quarter helped the Chargers lose a shootout. Running back Ryan Mathews has struggled with injuries and gaining the coaching staff's confidence. It's not a good sign Ronnie Brown is still playing so much.
Left tackle Jared Gaither's signing was a disaster. The Chargers spent $9 million for practically nothing, then left undrafted rookie Mike Harris to protect Rivers' blind side. Harris has been an unmitigated disaster. Most of general manager A.J. Smith's signings haven't panned out. Robert Meachem was benched at midseason for guys the Chargers picked up off the street. Eddie Royal is hurt. Antonio Gates isn't quite the same caliber player, and the team desperately misses Vincent Jackson because Rivers isn't going vertical. Rivers' yards per attempt and plays over 20 yards have fallen off a cliff. The team is 27th in turnovers.
On defense, they Chargers still don't generate a consistent pass rush. Outside linebacker Shaun Phillips is not having a great year and Jarrett Johnson hasn't been a difference maker.
Did we mention A.J. Smith was lousy in free agency yet?
What went right
John Pagano has done a nice job with the Chargers defense overall. It's vastly improved and their scheme is tough to prepare for. San Diego had a nice young nucleus to build around. Corey Liuget is enjoying a breakout season. Donald Butler is vastly underrated. Melvin Ingram and Kendall Reyes look like keepers. Eric Weddles remains elite at safety. The Chargers need help in the secondary, but Smith has done a much better job rebuilding the defense in recent years than the offense.
The Chargers beat the soft spots in their schedules. Their only loss to a truly bad team was against the Cleveland Browns. The bigger problem is the combination of Turner and Rivers' game management. They found ways to blow leads against Denver, Baltimore, and New Orleans.
What still matters
Wins in the next two weeks would give the Chargers a faintly beating heart with three weeks to go. That's probably what will happen, just to get their fans hopes up. Rivers is auditioning for his next head coach.
What changes are coming?
Turner will be let go barring a miracle five-game winning streak and playoff spot. We have a gnawing suspicion Smith will hang on and pick the next Chargers head coach because owner Dean Spanos won't want to eat the remaining portion of his contract, but the Chargers might have to win some games down the stretch to make that happen.
Rivers seems likely to be embraced as a starter by any new staff that comes in, but he might have a more competitive backup situation than before. Everything is about to change in San Diego, one year later than it should have.