Even with their 2011 playoff hopes scuttled by the six-game losing streak with which they entered Monday night's game at Jacksonville, a disastrous skid that could end the five-year tenure of Norv Turner as head coach, San Diego Chargers players still remembered that the calendar had flipped to December.
And the Chargers don't lose in December.
At least, not very much.
The 38-14 victory over the Jaguars, fashioned by three touchdown passes from quarterback Philip Rivers, whose disappointing season has mirrored that of the Chargers, nudged San Diego's record to 23-2 after Dec. 1 since 2006. In four of the previous five years, the Chargers were unbeaten in regular-season play after December dawned, and it might take a similar stretch run for San Diego to attempt to make up a two-game division deficit to the AFC West front-runners Tebow-manic Denver and schizophrenic Oakland.
But the Chargers, despite the carnage of a season that uncharacteristically began with a 4-1 start, understand the importance of this time of year.
"It's December," wide receiver Vincent Jackson tersely said after the game.
Around the league, even if the "it's December" realization hasn't become a public rallying cry, the sense that the season has entered the final turn is unmistakable. In both locker rooms at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon, for instance, the urgency was palpable, from both the victorious Pittsburgh Steelers and the defeated Cincinnati Bengals. One can only guess that the scene and the sentiment was similar around the rest of the league.
There is, to be sure, something special about playoff competition. That's true in just about every professional sport. But the run-up to the playoffs, the inexorable pursuit of momentum and meaning, tends to be compelling stuff, as well. Even for franchises with losing records, eliminated from postseason contention and seemingly playing out the string, December seems to hold a certain fixation.
"New owner, probably a new coach (for 2012), new eyes on you," one prominent Jaguars veteran told The Sports Xchange on Tuesday morning. "I know it's kind of (cliche), but we're all auditioning in a sense. And playing better now (in December), even if it doesn't make up for all the other (stuff) during the season, really does allow you to go out with a little better feeling about yourself."
In the Steelers' locker room on Sunday, where the aspirations and reasoning were far different from those in Jacksonville, the pain still lingered notably when a reporter mentioned the team's two losses to despised AFC North opponent Baltimore. But in the eyes and words of the most veteran Pittsburgh players, and in the message delivered by coach Mike Tomlin, there was the motivation that the final quarter of the season typically carries.
"Now is the time," said defensive end Brett Keisel, "to be a close to perfect as you can be. It's what it's all about."
Even 100 yards down the cinder-block corridor, where the summarily dispatched Bengals dressed slowly and quietly, there was an acknowledgment that December is somehow disproportionately weighted. Unlike most recent seasons, the Bengals are playing meaningful games in December, and the advent of the stretch run didn't exactly begin the way Cincinnati players had planned.
"The season starts running out on you," said offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth. "And you don't want to feel like you've left something behind."
Jackson, who scored a touchdown in Monday night's win, and who has been a part of so many December surges by the Chargers in the past, even reached for an automobile television commercial hook to describe the feeling and fervor which overrides the final month of the campaign.
"You always want to make it a December to remember," he said.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.