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Winning heals all

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

NASHVILLE – San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers described his team's overtime win over the Tennessee Titans as the toughest physical battle he had ever been involved in as a player.

The psychological side wasn't too pretty, either.

Down two touchdowns with a little more than nine minutes remaining and with players like Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, linebacker Shawne Merriman and fullback Lorenzo Neal either hobbled or completely out of the game, San Diego righted itself for a remarkable 23-17 victory.

The win was fortunate beyond just improving the Chargers to 8-5 and keeping them in control of the AFC West. A loss could have led to the exposure of some ugly wounds, such as Rivers and running back LaDainian Tomlinson exchanging some terse words in the third quarter.

Or some defensive players throwing things on the sideline in disgust as the offense was bumbling around. Or the offense being so crabby in the locker room at halftime.

Instead, all of that was wiped away as fast as Tomlinson could give Rivers a hug as they exchanged spots on the podium during the postgame press conference.

"I love you, man," Tomlinson said with a joking grin.

"I love you, too, LT," Rivers said back as Tomlinson left the room.

This is how on-the-edge football players live. The difference between winning momentum and team disarray can be as simple as a catch. Like the critical 19-yarder wide receiver Chris Chambers made on fourth-and-5 with 1:52 remaining, which allowed the Chargers to survive on their game-tying drive.

With that catch – which survived a review that looked pretty iffy – and the Chargers' eventual victory, San Diego was able to improve to 7-2 over its past nine games, easing the sting of a 1-3 start. And with that catch and win, Chargers GM A.J. Smith could talk about his "steps to the season" plan with confidence.

"You've heard me say this many times," Smith said in the locker room after the game. "The first step is to get into the playoffs. Right now, we're in control of that path. The second step is to build some momentum going into the playoffs, to feel good about yourself as a team.

"At the beginning of the season, we were inconsistent. Even in this game, we were inconsistent, but we kept battling and fighting and eventually we were able to pull it out. You'd like to think that will help build the momentum I'm talking about. We still have three games to go, so all of that can change. But this was a great win for us in trying to take that second step."

That all sounds logical, but after watching San Diego struggle to even move for the first 51 minutes, the words and pictures don't quite jibe. Of San Diego's first 11 drives, none were even 40 yards long. Seven were for nine yards or fewer, including three that went backward.

Rivers took much of the blame for that.

"There was a quarterback out there who wasn't playing very good for 50 minutes," Rivers said of himself.

Putrid, actually. Over that time, Rivers was eight of 17 for 83 yards and two interceptions. Over the final nine minutes and into overtime, Rivers was 13 for 23 for 145 yards and two touchdowns.

Moreover, Rivers did that basically while playing on one leg. His left knee, which is believed to have at least a partially torn medial collateral ligament, was injured while Rivers was making a pitch in the first half. He was taken to the locker room and team trainers fitted him with tape and a brace to keep him on the field, where his already awkward gait was further diminished.

After the game, Rivers' leg was wrapped in a cloth bandage from just above the ankle to just above his thigh.

"It was tough, but I don't want to make it sound more heroic than it is," Rivers said. "There are a lot of guys playing banged up out there."

Some, like Gates, missed some time before returning. Gates suffered a bruised lower back when he fell hard in the first half.

"I was hurt, but I knew I wasn't injured," said Gates, who managed to get open for the game-tying score with nine seconds remaining. "It was just pain and I felt like I had to get through that. If I just go out there, I figure they have to guard me and that'll open things up for other people."

Others, such as Merriman (sprained knee) and Neal (broken leg), couldn't return at all to a game that featured more than the usual accusations about cheap shots.

"The refs weren't throwing any flags, so it was all legal," San Diego linebacker Matt Wilhelm said. "I don't want to start (anything), but we knew pretty much from the beginning of the game how it was going to be. You could see it was going to be physical. The way they did some things – hitting after the whistle, going low at your legs – you could call it cheap. But that's the way it goes."

At least that's what the Chargers were saying Sunday, before they got a chance to review the hit that eventually knocked Merriman from the game with a sprained knee. Merriman said he was hit with a high-low block where two Tennessee offensive lineman hit him, one going high while the other went low at his knees.

Worse, Merriman said the play happened some 15 yards away from where the ball carrier was at the time.

"They were coming after me," said Merriman, who got booed for a hit on Tennessee quarterback Vince Young earlier in the game. Merriman said the hit on Young wasn't a cheap shot.

"I was trying to hold him up as we went down," said Merriman, who was actually moving around better than Rivers after the game. "The refs saw it, they knew it."

However the situation unfolded, Merriman spent the second half in sweats on the sideline and said he wasn't sure how long he'd be out, if at all.

If Rivers, Merriman, Gates and/or Neal are out too long, the Chargers may have an important question to answer.

Is it better to play with injured limbs or hurt feelings?