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Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry F*ckin' Christmas! No. 2 Seed, First Round Bye!

NASHVILLE – The first time he threw deep, putting the headwind and the Tennessee Titans to the quick test, the ball seemed to flutter slightly and landed well short of its target. That was, a wide-open Vincent Jackson on a streak pattern with nothing but grass between him and the goal line.

However, if the breeze, the Christmas chill and other elements proved an initial impediment, they were not deterrents to Philip Rivers. By any means.

Rivers could not have been sharper with most of the rest of his passes, going long and short to pick the Titans apart in the Chargers' highly impressive 42-17 victory to make it a bah-humbug evening at LP Field, a performance that likely elevated San Diego further in the eyes of a national-television audience and might have pushed Rivers into the competition with peerless Peyton Manning and Drew Brees in Most Valuable Player discussions.

That the Titans were desperate for a win to stay alive for the postseason and the Chargers were already assured of a division title, motivated solely by the desire to gain the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a bye in the first round, made San Diego’s complete domination of Tennessee even more striking. The Chargers barely looked like a team needing a break of any kind, though they now have nine days before their regular-season finale against the Washington Redskins at Qualcomm Stadium.

For those keeping count, the Chargers who once were 2-3 have won 10 straight, the Titans 7-8 after an 0-6 start. More numbers: Darren Sproles scored three touchdowns, including the two in the third quarter that turned a game into a foregone conclusion. LaDainian Tomlinson scored twice, breaking an NFL record in the process, and the Chargers defense produced two interceptions and a fumble recovery.

Rivers and his vast array of targets – he completed passes to nine different receivers, five to Jackson – simply had the Titans clueless how to stop San Diego. Rivers connected on 21 of 27 passes for 264 yards – attaining his second straight 4,000-yard season – including a 36-yard touchdown pass to tight end Antonio Gates and a 52-yarder to Malcom Floyd that was negated by a holding penalty.

When the Chargers basically emptied their bench in the early fourth quarter – Rivers was replaced by Billy Volek, who spent his first seven seasons with the Titans – it was hard to believe the Titans actually held a lead. With the breeze at his back, Tennessee kicker Rod Bironas made good on a 46-yard goal to open the scoring nearly midway through the first quarter.

Four penalties by the Titans, including a pass interference on third-and-one at the Titans’ 11-yard line, helped the Chargers take the lead before quarter’s end. The two-yard touchdown by LaDainian Tomlinson was his 137th rushing score of the 21st Century, breaking him out of a tie with Emmitt Smith for most running scores in a decade.

Seemingly every time the ball got into the hands of Chris Johnson, the NFL’s new phenom did something breathtaking, and one of his carries on fourth-and-two set up the Titans with a first-and-goal at the Chargers’ 30-yard line. On the next snap, however, linebacker Brandon Siler intercepted Vince Young, whereupon Rivers passed the Chargers to another TD.

Immediately after a sack of Rivers by Jacob Ford, the Titans were closing in again on Rivers, but he showed some deft footwork to keep from getting tripped up for another loss. Moreover, with him on the run, the defense came off Gates, left uncovered for a 36-yard touchdown pass. The Titans challenged the score, thinking Rivers was across the line of scrimmage when releasing the pass, but the protest was not upheld.

Another turnover led to yet another Rivers touchdown pass. For the seventh time this season – a league high – linebacker Shaun Phillips forced a fumble and Stephen Cooper recovered at midfield. Rivers immediately went for the jugular, hitting Malcom Floyd for a 52-yard score that was negated by penalty. Tennessee continued to shoot itself in the foot, too, getting called for roughing-the-passer and tacking on another 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. Two passes to Vincent Jackson got the offense close enough for Sproles to catch a three-yard TD and make it 21-3.

That might’ve been the game right there, really, but then Young began looking like the Vince Young who passed Texas to that incredible victory over USC in the Rose Bowl. Doing more damage with his legs, Young briskly moved the Titans downfield and personally punctuated the drive, scoring on a 3-yard keeper around the right side.

Tennessee wouldn't get closer.