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Sunday, December 20, 2009
Emotions don't get in way of Chargers' win

By Bill Williamson
ESPN.com

Philip Rivers
Philip Rivers and the Chargers clinched their fourth straight AFC West title.

SAN DIEGO -- It was early in the third quarter of a hotly contested game with huge AFC playoff ramifications. Yet, Chargers safety Eric Weddle and Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco appeared a million miles away.

During an injury timeout, Weddle approached Ochocinco -- the two men did not know each other -- and just started talking. Weddle was trying to be supportive of Ochocinco, but Weddle admitted talk also was cathartic for himself in the aftermath of the death of Bengals receiver Chris Henry.

The Cincinnati Bengals were not alone in their sorrow Sunday.

Even though they naturally assumed the role of the bad guys Sunday, the Chargers were hurting for the Bengals, who had to travel across country and play a pivotal game three days after Henry died. Henry, 26, died Thursday from head injuries he sustained Wednesday when he fell from the back of a pickup truck during a domestic dispute.

Even though the Chargers were elated to win a thrilling 27-24 game that gave them their fourth straight AFC West division title and put them on the doorstep of a first-round bye in the playoffs, they took time to reflect on Henry.

"It was tough out there," Weddle said. "I just felt like I had to say something to Chad."

Weddle is deeply religious and said he spoke from the heart to Ochocinco. The two opponents stood alone in the middle of the field for several moments.

"I just told him that we were hurting too and that we’re a football family," Weddle said. "I told Chad that as a leader, this is his time to take charge and help his teammates and Chris’ family. ... It was just something I felt I needed to do. Look, it was a huge game out there, but you can’t help but feel for the situation and realize the bigger picture.”

The Chargers didn’t exactly feel guilty about beating the Bengals. But they knew a nation was rooting against them. The Bengals were the story in the NFL on Sunday.

Trailing 24-13, the Bengals, who were listless in the third quarter, roared back with 11 points in the fourth quarter to tie the score with 54 seconds to go. However, San Diego drove down the field to set up a 52-yard field goal by Nate Kaeding with three seconds to go.

The Bengals slumped off the field in obvious despair.

"They really played hard," Weddle said. "Emotions were high all game long on both sides."

Other key developments from the game:

The Chargers are in great shape: While it certainly wasn't easy, the Chargers' mastery continued. The 11-3 Chargers have won nine straight games. They have won an NFL-record 17 consecutive December games dating to 2006.

Moments after Kaeding’s game-winning kick sent the crowd -- which was the loudest it has been in some time -- into hysterics, the Chargers got another holiday treat.

With the game playing on the jumbo screens, some Chargers players and many fans watched Oakland stun Denver. The Raiders’ big road upset dropped the Broncos to 8-6, clinching the Chargers' fourth division title in a row.

The fact that San Diego clinched the division in Week 15 is particularly remarkable considering Denver led the Chargers by 3.5 games after Week 6. Much has changed in nine weeks.

Most notably, the Chargers have been unstoppable. While they didn’t dominate Cincinnati in the fourth quarter, the Chargers once again made enough plays to win.

Just as important as winning the division title, San Diego closed in on the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and a first-round bye. If the Chargers win one more game or if New England (9-5) loses one, the Chargers will get the No. 2 seed, which would be paramount in its chase for the Super Bowl.

San Diego plays at Tennessee on Friday and then closes out the season at home against Washington. The Patriots play host to Jacksonville next week and then close out the season at Houston.

Nate Kaeding
Nate Kaeding kicked a 52-yard field goal to lift the Chargers over the Bengals, 27-24.
And the kick was good: Kaeding may be one of the most underrated kickers in the NFL. He shouldn’t be after Sunday.

After quarterback Philip Rivers drove the Chargers 46 yards in six plays to the Cincinnati 34, Kaeding came in and blasted the 52-yarder to win the game. Kaeding, the most accurate kicker in NFL history with a career percentage of more than 86 percent, cleared the cross bar easily.

“When I hit it I knew it was good,” Kaeding said. “There was a lot of adrenaline in that situation coming down to the wire, trying to hit it for the win and since it came off my foot I knew it was good. Mayhem ensued from there.”

Defense needs to tighten: The Chargers’ defense has had some moments of vulnerability this season. The issues crept back Sunday, especially in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati, which has had trouble scoring at points this season, dominated in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati had 314 yards passing and 114 yards rushing.

With a game against the dangerous Titans and superstar running back Chris Johnson approaching on a short week -- San Diego travels to Nashville on Wednesday for the Friday night game -- the Chargers need to iron out the kinks.

Despite the late defensive lapse, the Chargers did what it took to win another December game.

"It was hard-fought," San Diego cornerback Antonio Cromartie said. "But we went out and finished it. That’s what counts most."