Since the NFL-AFL merger, the Chargers are 29-49-1 on the road against the teams now in the AFC East and AFC North. More recently, they're a meager 8--18 since 2000, including 1--4 at New England, 0--4 at Pittsburgh and 0--2 at Baltimore.
"My approach was, you have to build a complete team so you can adjust and play whoever you're playing," Turner says. "When we went to New England [for the AFC Championship Game], that was a physical, hard-fought game. Philip was running around on one leg, [tight end] Antonio [Gates] was on one leg, and LT didn't play in the game. Your goal is to have your guys be the best team you can be. Then hopefully you have some good luck."
Of the Chargers' trouble playing East Coast powers on their own turf, cornerback Quentin Jammer says, "Maybe it's the six-hour flight. You get in [on Friday], get up the next day, go through walk-through, meetings and film, then play the next day. If I had to say, it would be the trip across the country."
After Ryan's zinger—and Turner's response that Ryan could add his two hypothetical Chargers rings to the two he has promised Jets fans and failed to deliver—never has a game felt more like a defense of coaches' honor. And when those are the rules of engagement, Ryan is often the master. "Certain coaches have an ability to get the best out of their players," Tomlinson says, "and I think Rex does that better than anybody."
Having already lost at New England in Week 2, the Chargers knew what was at stake. When they jumped out to a 21--10 halftime lead, giving better than they got against Ryan's hard hitters, it appeared they'd put to rest claims that they were soft and didn't travel well. "Our guys came out and played fast," Turner said. "We came in here and had a chance to win this game against a very good football team. We have to fix the reasons we didn't win it."
The Chargers' offense never adjusted in the second half, failing to adapt when the Jets mixed up coverages with extra defensive backs. On defense San Diego could stop neither Greene nor the 6'5" Burress, who was matched against 6'1" corner Antoine Cason on three scores in the red zone. The Chargers were in control—until they weren't.
Rivers was visibly upset after the loss, his 10th in 11 road starts against the AFC East or AFC North since '07. This year he was expected to solidify his place among the game's elite QBs, but through six games he has thrown more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns (seven), including two picks each in the losses to the Patriots and the Jets. His 82.3 passer rating is his lowest since he became a starter in 2006. "All I hear for six months was that the regular season didn't matter," he said. "Now everyone wants to know what is the matter? We are 4--2. We've been worse."
That's in contrast to recent seasons, when poor starts have compounded San Diego's travel woes and left the Chargers frantically chasing a playoff spot down the stretch. (This is the first season under Turner in which they've had a winning record through six games.) "You haven't had a chance to rest the people you want to rest and tweak the things you want to tweak," says former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, now an NFL Network analyst. "The Chargers have had all their chips on the table every game. They are either coming [into the postseason] wounded or fighting to get in. That's been an issue for them."
For the Chargers it's always something—wideout Vincent Jackson's holdout last season; Gates's plantar fasciitis this season; the up-and-down start to the career of running back Ryan Mathews, the 2010 first-rounder out of Fresno State who was seen as Tomlinson's replacement. He and fellow back Mike Tolbert, the Chargers' leading receiver, have become integral to San Diego's passing game, allowing Rivers a check-down option to get rid of the ball quickly. But against the Jets, Tolbert didn't catch a pass. And the ground attack, ranked 14th in the league, has yet to provide a consistent complement to Rivers, who has not looked at ease this season.
While the Chargers faced a long plane ride home, having added to the chance of yet another trip East for the playoffs (first tie-breaker for home field advantage: head-to-head record), the Jets entered their bye week on a two-game winning streak. Tomlinson hasn't said how much longer he will play, but eventually he will get a new tattoo, and another circle will close. Neal speaks to Tomlinson once a week, and he remembers their film study on off days or Friday-night steak dinners on the road or training camp trips to the local Boll Weevil restaurant for games of dominoes and spades.