Awful to adequate: Rivers recharges San Diego

Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who finished with 146 yards rushing, beats Calvin Lowry to score the winning TD on a 16-yard run in overtime. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In a little more than nine minutes, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers cleaned up a mess he'd spent much of the afternoon making.

When the Titans knocked Rivers out of the game early in the second quarter, it almost seemed like a show of mercy. To that point, he was 5-for-11 for 40 yards and an interception.

That's why no one in his right mind could have foreseen Rivers' leading the Chargers to a stunning 23-17 overtime victory Sunday that sucked all the life out of LP Field and put the Titans' playoff hopes on life support.

"This is why I liked him," Chargers GM A.J. Smith said of Rivers. "His biggest strength is that he's mentally strong. He's gone through some rough times, and it's easy to get in a little funk. But this is what we saw in him, and that's the guy we want out there in this type of situation."

Still looking stunned 45 minutes after the game, Rivers said, "I was killing us for a stretch of the game. That's as physical a game as I've ever been in."

It was the third consecutive victory for a San Diego team that improved to 8-5 and inched closer to clinching the AFC West title. The loss was devastating for the Titans, who fell a game behind the Browns in the race for the AFC's final wild-card spot.

It was also a major step back for Titans QB Vince Young, who was 13-of-21 for 121 yards and threw two awful interceptions, the second hitting an unsuspecting Matt Wilhelm between the numbers as he dropped back in zone coverage.

In the first half, defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch punished Rivers on the few occasions he was able to unload the ball. Even his 17.2 passer rating at the half didn't accurately reflect his ineptitude.

The constant hits caused him to feel pressure even when it wasn't there. Chargers left tackle Marcus McNeill and left guard Kris Dielman ended up in Rivers' lap on play after play, and the arrival of former Titans quarterback Billy Volek had to be a welcome sight to Chargers fans.

Surprising even his coach, Rivers staggered onto the field in the second half, throwing another terrible interception and taking more punishment from a defensive line that had all but eliminated the Chargers' best option, running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

Then Rivers did what seemed like the impossible. With nine minutes left and his team trailing 17-3, he finally showed signs of life.

He connected with Dolphins escapee Chris Chambers for 26 yards across the middle, setting up a 7-yard touchdown pass to Tomlinson three plays later. And when the Titans failed to ice the game on their final drive, Rivers led his team on a 14-play, 80-yard scoring drive to send the game into overtime.

Rivers was 11-of-17 for 123 yards and two touchdowns on his final two drives of regulation.

After completing a 2-yard pass to Antonio Gates in the corner of the end zone with nine seconds left, Rivers raced upfield in celebration before slowing to a limp.

The touchdown seemed to short-circuit a Titans defense that had dominated the Chargers with five sacks and three interceptions. At one point, Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch (a combined four sacks) appeared to be toying with the Chargers' offensive line by switching positions.

But on the Chargers' winning drive in overtime, Haynesworth couldn't catch his breath and mostly watched from the sideline.
He had missed three of the past four games with a sore hamstring, but he was dominant for three quarters Sunday. On the final drive, though, he could barely stand up on the sideline.

Afterward, several Chargers players complained that the Titans had purposely knocked linebacker Shawne Merriman out of the game as retribution for a hit he put on Young in the first half. Merriman (sprained left knee) and starting nose tackle Jamal Williams (sprained right ankle) spent most of the second half on the sideline. And tight end Gates played through a back injury.

It was Rivers, though, who held the team together. He said that he stepped into the huddle with nine minutes left and said, "Don't panic. We gotta score twice, but let's just get this first one out of the way right now."

In what has become a ritual when the Chargers are losing, Tomlinson gave Rivers an earful on the bench early in the second half. In fact, he couldn't even bring himself to sit next to his quarterback.

But after almost everyone had cleared out of the visiting locker room, Tomlinson and Rivers stood at their lockers and chatted excitedly about the winning drive.

Tomlinson was held to 33 yards on 12 carries in the first half. He finished with 146 yards and two touchdowns. On his winning touchdown, the Titans were expecting him to pound into the middle of the line to set up a field goal. He instead bounced the run outside and beat Titans safety Calvin Lowry to the goal line.

"Our thought process was to not rely on the field goal," he said. "Anything can happen with a field goal. If we can win with a touchdown, we need to do it."

The Chargers have spent the season answering for last season's 14-2 regular-season record. How could they have the same talent on the field and come into Sunday's game 7-5? On Sunday afternoon, though, 8-5 sounded pretty good. Player after player talked about how they were hitting their stride at the right time.

The best sign had to be Rivers bringing his team back from the dead.

"He probably shouldn't have been playing in that game anyway, but he does," center Nick Hardwick said. "He just can't help himself. He wants to compete, and he does it."

The Chargers might feel better about themselves at the moment. But when they're forced to watch the film, they'll discover what many of us know: This is still a suspect team.

Matt Mosley covers the NFL for ESPN.com.