Bolts show grit, promise in loss to Broncos

Philip Rivers and the Chargers rallied for 17 points in the fourth quarter, but ultimately fell short. AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

DENVER -- The San Diego Chargers needed to play mistake-free football to defeat the top-seeded Denver Broncos in the AFC playoffs.

They didn't come close to that lofty standard, losing 24-17 to bring to an end the team's surprising playoff run.

However, staying true to his overarching philosophy, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said his teammates played with character, scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter and putting a scare into the sellout crowd at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

“We have nothing to be ashamed of,” Rivers said. “We fought together, played together. The way we competed and the character of this team allows us to hold our heads high.”

The Chargers played keep away from the Broncos in the team's 27-20 victory here a month ago, controlling the ball for more than 38 minutes. But with workhorse running back Ryan Mathews slowed because of a left ankle injury, the Chargers could not use the running game to drain the clock and keep Peyton Manning and Denver's potent offense off the field.

“I was trying to do whatever I could,” Mathews said in the locker room afterward. He was noticeably limping on his way to the team bus.

Mathews finished with just 26 yards on five carries, and did not play in the second half. The Chargers were held to 259 total yards, 65 on the ground, and finished 4-of-12 on third down.

San Diego led the league in third-down efficiency during the regular season, converting 49 percent.

Did offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's head coaching interviews with Detroit, Tennessee and Cleveland this past week contribute to San Diego's struggles on offense?

Chargers head coach Mike McCoy wasn't buying it.

“Not one bit,” McCoy said, when asked if Whisenhunt's interviews were a distraction. “I went through the exact same thing in the bye week last year. That was the furthest thing from my mind -- taking another job -- when we kicked off.

“That was the last thing I was thinking about, getting another job. We have a lot of pride in this profession as coaches, and you try to win. There's no guarantees, so you try to do everything you can for the organization you're working for, and that's who you work for. That was the attitude we talked about the whole time, and that's what Ken did.”

While San Diego sputtered offensively, the Chargers stayed in the game with a defense that held the Broncos to less than 30 points for the third time this season. The only other team to keep the Broncos to less than 30 this season was Kansas City.

The Chargers forced two turnovers and kept the game within striking distance, allowing the offense to make a run in the final quarter.

“We played well,” Chargers safety Eric Weddle said. “There wasn't many big plays, which is always our No. 1 goal going against them. Too many little mistakes, though.”

The Chargers ultimately couldn't get off of the field on third-and-17 from Denver's 20-yard line with 3:06 left, with a miscommunication in coverage allowing Manning to complete a 21-yard strike to tight end Julius Thomas.

From there, Manning and the Broncos salted away the game.

Despite the loss, San Diego's surprising playoff run allowed 37 of its players to gain valuable experience competing in the NFL playoffs for the first time.

“Playoff football is awesome,” Rivers said. “There is nothing better when it comes to the NFL. There is the NFL, and then there is NFL playoffs. It's in a separate column. You want to be in them.”

Defensive lineman Corey Liuget, who finished with five tackles, looks forward to earning another chance to compete in the playoffs next season.

“We just have to learn from it,” he said. “And next year, when we come into this type of environment, we know what we have to do.”

Added cornerback Shareece Wright: “We have high expectations now. We expect a lot from this team, and each player. We're looking forward. And we're trying to take the positive out of everything.”

In his first season as head coach of the Chargers, McCoy molded this group into a cohesive unit that, with a little more talent and seasoning, could develop into a consistent playoff contender.

“We became a team in a hurry this year,” McCoy said. “It's not something that happens overnight. But it's something that we've built over time. And it showed a lot about them -- the way that they care about one another. We got a good group of guys.”