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Chargers Tunnel to Win

Defense starts, finishes as one; team record improves to 2-1

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Getty Images
    Members of the San Diego Chargers defense prepare to enter the game against the Kansas City Chiefs during their NFL Game on September 25, 2011 at Qualcomm Stadium in San DIego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

    Takeo Spikes didn't stay up all night thinking about it.

    Heck, he'd hardly thought it through.

    Inside the Qualcomm Stadium tunnel for player introductions, the San Diego Chargers linebacker turned to the 10 other defensive starters and told them not to run onto the field when their name was called.

    “Let's do this together,” Spikes said.

    From start to finish Sunday, they did.

    The defense dominated the injury-riddled Kansas City Chiefs in the first half, and when the momentum swung and the game was on the line, the Chargers unit clinched a 20-17 win with safety Eric Weddle's instinctive interception.

    Spikes, a co-captain, couldn't rehash his train of thought prior to telling teammates to remain in the tunnel, but looking back, he thought it showed the group's unity.

    “I just felt it,” Spikes, 34, said. “A lot of the stuff that comes out of my mouth isn't premeditated. I can't explain it. I just felt it was right to do that … We work hard together. We eat together. We laugh together. We go through the highs and we go through the lows together. We're getting ready to line up, so let's do everything together. We do it together throughout the week. Let's do it together today.”

    The gesture translated.

    Once on the field, the close-knit group was stout in the opening half, not allowing a first down and conceding only 34 net yards. Still, the game was too close for comfort.

    Two Philip Rivers interceptions in the red zone stopped what should have been a slaughter on the scoreboard. Running back Ryan Mathews alone nearly tripled the Chiefs' offensive output with 94 total yards, and the Chargers had 13 first downs and 211 net yards.

    The first pick came on a softly thrown pass intended for wide receiver Vincent Jackson. By the time the ball arrived, Jackson, who'd gained separation while dragging across the field, was draped in double coverage, and safety Kendrick Lewis took the turnover 50 yards.

    Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers made the other interception in the end zone on an overthrown attempt for wide receiver Malcom Floyd.

    For all that dominance, the team's lead was a mere 10-0 at half.

    Rivers' interception total jumped to six through three games. It is the first time in his career he's thrown multiple interceptions in three consecutive outings.

    “The only stat I care about is winning,” said Rivers, who was 24-for-38 with 266 yards. “Everybody can analyze and talk about what I should've done and shouldn't have done. We're 2-1, and we'll keep trying to do all we can to help us win. Certainly, I want to play better, and I'm going to work like crazy to do that. Two and one is what's important.”

    The Chiefs (0-3), playing in their first full game without Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles, who was lost last week to a knee injury, took the Chargers defense out of rhythm in the second half.

    It relied more on speedy running back Dexter McCluster, who had nine carries for 45 yards after not receiving a handoff in the first half. It converted five of seven third downs, thanks in large part to ill-timed Chargers penalties that sustained drives. Multiple injuries tested the defense.

    Ultimately, it passed.

    With 1:34 remaining on 4th and inches, Rivers was stuffed on a quarterback sneak, and the Chiefs took over on their own 34-yard line, needing a field goal to tie the game.

    Without a timeout, quarterback Matt Cassel found tight end Leonard Pope for a 23-yard gain. The Chiefs hurried to the line, and the Chargers' Weddle stalked toward the line of scrimmage, ready to blitz off the edge.

    But then Weddle, who signed a $40 million contract in July, saw McCluster release from the backfield.

    “If he releases or steps up, it's my guy,” said Weddle, who caught an errant screen pass for the first interception by a Chargers defensive back this season. “It's just reading the route, reading the play as it unfolds. I knew a screen was coming, or something was up, if he's not blocking. I got by the lineman, and I don't know if (Cassel) was throwing it away or not … Huge play. Huge to get that win.”

    To start the afternoon, the crowd cheered and cannons fired as no individual left the tunnel.

    At defensive end, from South Connecticut State, number 74: Jacques Cesaire. At defensive tackle, from Boston College, number 71: Antonio Garay. At defensive end, from Western Ontario, number 92: Vaughn Martin.

    Maybe it wasn't thought out, but soon enough, it all made sense.

    “It really showed the unity we have for each other, the love we have for each other,” Spikes said. “The thing we all talk about is, 'I don't care who gets the credit. I don't care who gets a sack. I don't care who gets the interception. It's all about the wins, and I don't care how you get them. Just get a win. Drop the ego. Let's get a win.'”

    The Chargers won. Together as one.

    Mathews Sees Load
    Ryan Mathews usually defers to Mike Tolbert on third down and goal-line situations.

    On Sunday, it was all him.

    The second-year running back set season highs with 21 carries for 98 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught all four passes thrown his way for 51 yards.

    Chargers coach Norv Turner said the biggest factor in Mathews' increased workload was Tolbert (calf) missing practice Wednesday and Thursday.

    "He was beat up pretty good coming out of New England," Turner said, "and it was time to let Ryan take more of the load ... I'm excited about Ryan and what he's doing. He's getting better every week.

    "Obviously, he's an outstanding runner, and I think he's getting more comfortable and using his vision a lot better and making good running decisions. It's very obvious that he's becoming a very good receiver."

    Tolbert rushed four times for 19 yards with three catches for 24. Late in the fourth quarter, he made a 21-yard reception to convert a key third down.

    Jammer, Cesaire Injured
    The Chargers defensive line played most of the second half with only four members.

    Already with end Corey Liuget (ankle) inactive, replacement Jacques Cesaire left the third quarter with a knee injury. He was listed as questionable to return but stayed sidelined.

    At one point, the line was down to three when a cut opened near nose tackle Antonio Garay's eye. He returned a few players later.

    Cornerback Quentin Jammer (left hamstring) also left the game in the third. Rookie Marcus Gilchrist, a second-round draft choice, took his spot, and with Gilchrist, the Chargers "didn't miss a beat," Turner said.

    "He is really a good player," Turner said. "If you're going to go and be successful and do the things we want to do in this league, you need to have guys like that. I really like our first- and second-year players and the way they've stepped up."

    The severity of the injuries will be determined Monday after further testing.