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Running back Ryan Mathews #24 of the San Diego Chargers celebrates his 31 yard touchdown run on fourth down and one yard to go in the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos at INVESCO Field at Mile High on January 2, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. Mathews rushed for three touchdowns and 120 yards as the Chargers defeated the Broncos 33-28.
Like their season, the Chargers' final game had its marvelous moments, glimpses of what could have been in a perfect world where realized potential fertilizes football fields and the autumn always lasts past early January.
A selective highlight reel could make it seem so incredulous that this team -- with Ryan Mathews rushing for 120 yards and three touchdowns, Philip Rivers passing for 313 yards, and cornerback Antoine Cason returning a punt for 62 yards in a 33-28 Sunday win over the Broncos -- is kaput at 9-7.
Why? What happened? How could it be?
Thankfully, the Chargers were good enough to provide a few helpful reminders.
There was Mathews fumbling twice in the second quarter, Rivers getting sacked five times and called in the red zone for intentional grounding, and then the special teams -- ah, yes, the special teams.
The same unit that allowed two kickoff-return touchdowns, a punt-return touchdown, and four blocked punts with one deflection in the first nine games -- not to mention a blocked field goal, botched point-after attempt and a misery of missed tackles that critically swayed field position in the team's disfavor -- reverted to its old tricks.
All in the season's final eight minutes: Undrafted Broncos rookie Cassius Vaughn returned the second kickoff of his career 97 yards for a touchdown, Chargers punter Mike Scifres mishandled a snap and booted the ball 21 yards into the thin Mile High Stadium air, and the hands team conceded possession on the onside kick when the ball bounced off wide receiver Malcom Floyd's palms into a Broncos stampede.
That and two Hail Mary passes from rookie quarterback Tim Tebow, the first of which tipped dangerously into the back of the end zone, was how it ended for the 2010 Chargers.
This is why. This is what happened. This is how it could be.
The Chargers were given a 16-game trial, and by the end, the final verdict seemed fair.
They were too inconsistent for innocence. Too guilty of gaffes to play on.
“I'm not happy with giving up a kickoff return for a touchdown, and I wasn't happy that Ryan put the ball on the ground,” said coach Norv Turner, whose team was eliminated from the playoffs after last week's 34-20 road loss to the 4-12 Bengals. “Those are things we're going to have to continue to address.... Sometimes it didn't look as good as I would have liked it to, but ultimately, what we wanted to do is win the game, and that's what we did.”
The team now turns to a future built on the season's silver lining: the selective highlight reel.
Mathews had a season-finale breakthrough. Rivers was the all-season glue. The players in the revolving locker room, where the number of long snappers used -- five -- became a punchline, fought together.
The outlook is pure, unmarred by the injuries and miscues that forced the Chargers to play an NFL record-tying 74 different players this season.
Roughly eight months separate the next harvest, but the potential is growing again.
"It comes to a brutal end, but I thought there was a lot to learn from this year," Rivers said. "I don't think any season stands alone. I think this is all part of the process and the climb up to the top. As long as I'm playing quarterback here, I'm going to make sure that our team believes and fights that we're going to get there at some point, some season.
"We've got the right guys; we just didn't get it done this year," Rivers added. "We'll rezero in, and we'll make another charge."