You won't blame Norv Turner if he's wondering where it had been.
With a 10-point win in Pittsburgh last week that both ended a four-game losing streak and kept alive a fleeting hope for a 2012 playoff spot, the San Diego Chargers showed a glimpse of what many expected them to be throughout Turner's sixth season on the sidelines.
Instead, it'll probably take another late-season run to .500 -- and perhaps some conveniently compromising photos of his bosses -- to see that Turner maintains his job title beyond the end of December. Still, the veteran coach insists he's OK with that.
"That's not the thing that's on my mind," he said, in the midst of preparation for Sunday's game with the visiting Carolina Panthers. "We're trying to get ready for Carolina and trying to build on what we did last week. That's where I'm at."
The Chargers, who haven't fallen below .500 since 2003, won four of their final five games last season just to finish the season at even money. Still, they haven't made the playoffs since 2009 and Turner has said he expected it would take nothing short of a postseason appearance to save his gig.
In six seasons in San Diego, he is 54-39. The Chargers will finish the schedule with the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders. They're barely alive in the playoff race, though a Cincinnati win against 4-9 Philadelphia this week or a loss in any of their own final three will end the dream.
"It's been there, it's just about execution," said San Diego running back Ronnie Brown, whose team possessed the ball for more than 36 minutes, committed no turnovers and converted 12 of 22 third-down chances against the Steelers.
"You know, like we've been saying all season, when we execute, when we do it the way we're capable of doing it, the results are usually good. But unfortunately, we haven't been able to be consistent and do it for four quarters throughout the whole season."
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers threw three touchdowns and was sacked just once in the defeat of Pittsburgh -- San Diego's first regular season win in the Steel City in franchise history. He connected with free agent receiver Danario Alexander seven times for 88 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers, lifting the surprise wideout's totals to 30 catches, 494 yards and five TDs in the last five games.
On the other side, frustrating has been a familiar name of the game for the Panthers, too.
Carolina won six times in quarterback Cam Newton's record-setting rookie season in 2011, but its 4-9 mark this year is tied for the worst in the NFC -- in spite of seven losses by a touchdown or less.
Newton and Co. bared their claws for a 10-point defeat of conference front- runner Atlanta last week at home, churning a season-best 475 total yards against a team that had already clinched the NFC South championship and had dropped only one of its initial 12 games.
"The disappointing thing is that's what we can be," coach Ron Rivera said. "We know that. Based on what we did, how we did it and who we did it with, that's the disappointing thing. We've found some balance, we have. Unfortunately, we didn't do it sooner."
Rivera was an assistant to Turner in San Diego from 2007 to 2010 before taking over the Panthers.
Carolina has averaged 397.3 yards per game in its last four games while Newton has compiled 1,363 yards of offense and 11 touchdowns. In his initial seven games, the second-year man contributed just eight scores and committed 11 turnovers.
Newton ran for a career-high 116 yards against the Falcons, including a 72- yard TD.
"The way he played and the things that he did, that shows you what potentially he is going to become," Rivera said. "We just have to keep working and he has to keep growing as a football player. These last five weeks now have been pretty doggone solid. I'm very pleased with his development."
Carolina leads the all-time series, 3-1, including a 26-24 win in San Diego when the teams last played in September 2008. In that game, Panthers tight end Donte Rosario caught the decisive TD pass as time expired. Turner is 6-1 against the Panthers, while Rivera has never faced the Chargers.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Because Newton is one of the new breed -- and perhaps the most dangerous -- of athletic quarterbacks, the responsibility for drawing up a scheme to deal with him falls on San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano.
And whether his ultimate idea takes the form of a one-man spy or a multiple- man stacked box, the objective will be to keep the Carolina quarterback from going off early. The least palatable option is him running all over the field. Instead, the Chargers would prefer their chances if he's forced to operate as a traditional passer from the pocket.
Though neither team is likely to ultimately be where it wanted to be to wrap up the 2012 season, the perception exists that the Panthers have more to play for -- and more to prove -- down the stretch than the Chargers. It won't be easy taking the act across the country after a big home win over a division rival, but it says here that Newton finds a way to be this game's most important weapon.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Panthers 24, Chargers 21