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McCardell's return sets up winning TD

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Keenan McCardell took his time getting
dressed, carefully buttoning his bright fuchsia shirt and securing
his striped tie.

Perhaps he was savoring the moment, thrilled to be part of a
team again. Or maybe he was just tired after playing a predominant
role in San Diego's 17-6 victory over the Carolina Panthers on
Sunday.

"You like my shirt? You think I can pull this look off?" he
asked, his smile as bright as the shirt.

He could after pulling in five catches for 65 yards, including
two big grabs to set up LaDainian Tomlinson's go-ahead touchdown in
the third quarter, helping the Chargers (4-3) equal their win total
from a year ago.

"This was the role I envisioned," McCardell said. "When you
get into the flow of the game (playing time) really doesn't matter.
You just want to compete and do what you can to help the team
win."

Acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay on Tuesday, McCardell jumped
into San Diego's game plan despite not playing the first six games
because of a holdout with the Bucs.

"It is amazing he was able to come in on such a short workload
and be able to make the contribution he has," coach Marty
Schottenheimer said.

Trailing 6-0 in the third quarter, McCardell had catches of 23
and 18 yards to move the Chargers to the Carolina 8. Tomlinson
scored on the next play, giving San Diego a lead it never
relinquished.

McCardell helped make Tomlinson's day a little easier after the
Panthers stifled him most of the game. Carolina held Tomlinson, who
led the AFC in yards from scrimmage with 724, to 47 yards rushing.
He also had three catches for 13 yards.

Afterward, Tomlinson said he was bothered by a sore groin.

"I'm struggling a little bit," he said. "But hey, injuries
are going to happen. I can't say its worse, but I don't feel any
better."

It was a disheartening loss for Carolina (1-5). The defending
NFC champions have lost four straight and had pointed to this game
as one that could turn around the season.

Instead, the Panthers let it slip away with an inefficient
offense and very questionable play selection late in the game.

"Never in a million years did I think we would be 1-5 at this
juncture," safety Mike Minter said. "But it is what it is.
Everything is just a little bit off."

Trailing 10-6 with 6:29 to play, the Panthers used three long
pass plays to Keary Colbert to move into scoring range.

But after a sure touchdown slipped through Muhsin Muhammad's
fingers in the end zone, the Panthers seemed to panic. They ran
Nick Goings for 5 yards on second-and-15 at the 30, then handed off
to rookie Joey Harris for a yard on third-and-10, seemingly setting
up Carolina for John Kasay's field goal. Instead, the Panthers went
for it and Muhammad failed to make the reception.

"It was a low ball, I tried to dig it out," Muhammad said of
the fourth-down pass. "It would have been a tough play to make. We
were looking for a miracle play."

Carolina's run defense, maligned all season but solid for most
of this game, then cracked. Jesse Chatman broke free for a 52-yard
gain, then scored the game-breaking touchdown on a 5-yard run with
1:42 to play in a near-empty stadium.

It was such a lackluster game -- the Panthers led 6-0 until
Tomlinson's touchdown with 8:13 to play in the third -- that the
largest cheer of the day came when the stadium scoreboard showed
rival Atlanta getting blown out by Kansas City.

"Right now we are just not making the plays that we need to
win," Carolina coach John Fox said. "That's why we aren't
winning."

Chatman added 69 yards rushing, almost all on the final drive,
and the Chargers finished with 302 yards.

But Carolina couldn't do anything, despite opening the game with
a 12-play scoring drive to Kasay's 28-yard field goal.

Tomlinson fumbled on his first carry, giving Carolina possession
at the San Diego 34, and Kasay's 21-yarder put them up 6-0.

It stayed that way until Tomlinson reached the end zone.

Notes

San Diego's Nate Kaeding missed his first field goal of
the season just before halftime when his 29-yard attempt went wide
left. He had been 9-for-9 this year. He did make a 44-yarder. ...
The Panthers shuffled their offensive line, starting Travelle
Wharton at left tackle for injured Tutan Reyes, and starting Todd
Fordham at right tackle instead of Matt Willig. ... Tomlinson's
touchdown was the 43rd TD rushing of his career, tying him with
Chuck Muncie for the Chargers' team record.