http://www.dailynews.com/sports/ci_3301224 Loss to Miami severely hurts playoff hopes Billy Witz, Columnist SAN DIEGO - For those who watch the San Diego Chargers play and wonder why a team with LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates and Drew Brees on offense and a young defense that's getting better by the day finds itself on the fringe of the playoffs, wonder no more. Teams that play deep into January don't give away games like the Chargers did Sunday, losing to middling Miami 23-21 at Qualcomm Stadium. The Chargers, who had their five-game winning streak snapped, saw their playoff hopes crippled on a day when they were outplayed, outhustled, outcoached and seemed to have their attention anywhere but on the Dolphins. "We were going through the motions that we weren't playing a good football team, like we had won two or three straight Super Bowls," Tomlinson said. "That was my feeling of the whole thing. "A lot of times I think when you get on a roll and win a game,you expect to win every single game and that people are going to basically lay down for you and let you walk over them. But it's not like that." If the Chargers heads were in Indianapolis, their playoff hopes are now elsewhere, too - circling the drain. San Diego (8-5) dropped two games behind Denver in the AFC West and is tied for the final AFC wild-card berth with Pittsburgh, which owns a tiebreaker by virtue of beating the Chargers. But here's how costly this loss was: even if the Chargers sweep their final three games - at undefeated Indianapolis; at Kansas City, which has won 16 of its past 17 December home games; and Denver - they still will need help. And it's not likely to come. The Steelers must lose at Minnesota, at Cleveland or against Detroit. Or Jacksonville must lose, perhaps twice, to San Francisco, Houston and Tennessee. "We've definitely got a hard road now," Chargers offensive tackle Shane Olivea said. It was made that way thanks in part to a game plan that de-emphasized Tomlinson - against a defense that was ranked 21st in the league against the run - and ignored any deep threat. Tomlinson did manage 75 yards on 21 carries, and Brees completed 35 of 52 passes - both career highs - for 279 yards. Gates caught a career-high 13 passes for 123 yards. Until a meaningless drive in the final minute, Brees didn't complete a pass for more than 16 yards. "They played a lot more cover two (with two deep safeties) than we had seen and kept everything in front," said Chargers receiver Keenan McCardell, who caught seven passes for 58 yards. "It seemed like they were playing bend-don't-break defense. They were making us play everything underneath and we couldn't make the plays we needed to finish off drives." The Chargers had three turnovers and gave up the ball once Advertisement on downs. The most crucial mistake was kick returner Darren Sproles' fumble early in the third quarter. After Olindo Mare's 39-yard field goal brought Miami within 7-6, Sproles fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Mare recovered at the Chargers 24-yard line. Three plays later, Gus Frerotte hit Chris Chambers for an 8-yard score to put Miami ahead 13-7. On the next series, Frerotte found Chambers behind the defense for a 35-yard score and suddenly the Chargers trailed 20-7 with 3:33 left in the third quarter. After Brees' 4-yard run got the Chargers within 20-14, they seemed poised for another comeback when Miami's Ronnie Brown - going head over heels - fumbled just before he hit the goal line and Clinton Hart recovered at the Chargers 1. The Chargers inched forward, needing 12 plays to reach their 36, when Brees went back to pass on first down. The Miami coaches had noticed at halftime that Tomlinson had been helping on pass protection, chipping a defensive end before leaving as an outlet. They countered by blitzing safety Yeremiah Bell off the right side. Tomlinson didn't get much of Bell, who reached around and slapped the ball from Brees' hand as he was preparing to throw. "Fortunately, I got enough of it," Bell said. The ball dropped to the ground and with it the Chargers' playoff hopes, Kevin Carter falling on both for Miami with 2:31 to play. Mare booted a 20-yard field goal, rendering a late Charger touchdown moot when they couldn't recover an onside kick with 15 seconds left. Moments later, the Dolphins (6-7) gleefully celebrated keeping their faint playoff hopes alive while the Chargers glumly shuffled off the field, an apt picture of the way the teams played. "Just from the feeling of the game, it seemed like they were taking us lightly," Bell said. "They probably thought we were going to come out here and lay down." Once again with the Chargers, you have to wonder why.