Up 27-0 late in the first half of their wild-card clash with the Jaguars, the Chargers looked to be cruising toward an assured playoff victory and their first Divisional Round appearance in four years.
Two hours and a methodical, historic and eventually inevitable Jacksonville comeback later, Los Angeles was heading home instead.
"I'm hurting for everybody in that locker room," Chargers coach Brandon Staley said after their 31-30 defeat in Duval. "It's a special group of guys. This is the toughest way that you can lose in the playoffs."
Tough is an understatement. Los Angeles' 27-point blown lead was the largest in franchise history. The Chargers became the first team Saturday night to lose a playoff game with a turnover differential of +5 or better. Jacksonville's comeback was the third-largest in NFL postseason history, trailing only Andrew Luck's Colts defeating the Chiefs nine years ago (-28) and Frank Reich's Bills ousting the Oilers 30 years prior (-32).
The magnitude of the Chargers' missed opportunity was not lost on L.A.'s locker room.
"We choked," edge rusher Kyle Van Noy said in the locker room, per The Athletic.
"It's embarrassing," said defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day said, per ESPN. "It feels really bad, and it just sucks."
Added quarterback Justin Herbert, whose first postseason start ended in unforgettable fashion: "Obviously a tough go for us."
Where and how it all went wrong for the Chargers will be parsed throughout the offseason. Los Angeles jumped out to its 27-0 advantage thanks to five Jaguars turnovers, including four Trevor Lawrence interceptions, three of which were corralled by second-year star Asante Samuel Jr.. The Chargers benefited from outstanding field position en route to picking up points on five on their first seven drives; three marches started inside the Jags' red zone, and none began behind L.A.'s 32-yard line.
But the Chargers had only four offensive drives in the second half, their final two ending in a missed field goal from 40 yards out and a three-and-out setting up Jacksonville's revival. The close plays that went L.A.'s way defensively in the first half went Jacksonville's in the second. The Chargers didn't get a single stop on the Jags' four second-half marches and aided Jacksonville's comeback by committing boneheaded penalties at the wrong time.
Joey Bosa's three fouls (two of them unsportsmanlike conduct penalties) were particularly harmful. His offsides flag preceding a sack of Lawrence in the third quarter extended the Jags' first scoring drive of the second half, and his second unsportsmanlike foul on Jacksonville's final TD inspired Doug Pederson to go for two from the 1-yard line, a successful attempt that turned Riley Patterson's last-second field goal on the Jags' ensuing drive into a game-winner.
"I think he was frustrated," Staley said of Bosa. "I think he felt like there were a bunch of things that kind of accumulated throughout the game and tried to talk through it with the officials. But we can't lose our composure like that. We need to make sure that we stay on the high side of things and we can't hurt the team that way."
Bosa and Los Angeles were playing hurt this entire season. The pass rusher only came back from a significant groin injury two weeks ago; the Chargers were without star tackle Rashawn Slater for most of the campaign and lost his fill-in, rookie Jamaree Salyer, midway through Saturday's game; and starting receiver Mike Williams was sidelined by a back fracture suffered in Week 18's meaningless loss to Denver. Which is all to say: That the Chargers were in the postseason and in a position to throttle a division winner on the road after the 2022 season they had battled through was impressive in itself.
But that they were that close to advancing despite all the obstacles and then lost in the fashion they did, surrendering a 20-point halftime lead despite a +5 TO differential, makes Saturday's loss all the more devastating. For a franchise well-versed in heartbreaking defeats, Staley and the Chargers experienced a new low in Jacksonville, one they hope they can recover from next year.
"We're going to learn a lot from this," Staley concluded, "and unfortunately, this is the tough side of things.
"Our season's over."