Chargers So Close, But Yet So Far

The San Diego Chargers boarded their flight back to the west coast nursing bumps, bruises, or worse on Sunday night. But it could arguably be their egos which will be the worse for wear. When the New England Patriots held the Lamar Hunt trophy on the field in Gillette Stadium, claiming bragging rights and a trip to the Super Bowl, all the Chargers could do is sit quietly, hurting.

It hurts, sure it does. The Chargers know they were close to their second Super Bowl appearance and upending one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- teams in NFL history.

That is what will stick with the Chargers as they head for an offseason full of what ifs in the wake of Sunday's 21-12 loss to the Patriots in the AFC title game.

What if the Chargers would have been at full-strength, rather than LaDainian Tomlinson not touching the ball after the first quarter and Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates playing with injuries.

What if the Chargers could have converted at least one of their three trips inside the red zone into something other than Nate Kaeding field goals?

What if they would have gone for a first down when on the Patriots' 36 with about nine minutes to play when needing 10 yards for a fresh set of downs. Instead, coach Norv Turner elected to punt the ball and the Chargers never got another possession.

All that will be maddening, especially with the Chargers having to watch the Patriots take on the Giants and Eli Manning in the Super Bowl.

The Chargers could be there instead, sticking it to Manning after he stuck it to the franchise on draft day four years ago.

Members of the San Diego Chargers sit on the bench during the final moments of their 21-12 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship football game in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Jan. 20, 2008. The Patriots advance to the Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

But at least the Chargers were able to bounce back from a 1-3 start and go man-to-man with the Patriots on a day better suited for penguins and polar bears. There has to be some satisfaction in that, right?

Not exactly.

"We went into (the New England) game thinking what we were going to win," Turner said. "There is no real consolation in coming close."

As the season came to a close and the players cleared out their lockers Monday, it became apparent the offseason will be full of rehabbing to some of the team's top players.

Rivers has a torn ACL in his right knee and will have to undergo an operation which could take at least six months to rebound from.

Tomlinson has a sprained MCL in his left knee and is hoping to avoid the knife. He is going to rest his leg and is looking forward to getting better without a surgery.

Gates is in a similar situation as Tomlinson, hoping rest for his banged-up big toe -- which was dislocated in the playoffs' first round -- will do wonders as well.

Still, the Chargers will spend a fair amount of time playing the what-if game.

"We'll look back on it and be proud of a lot this year," Rivers said. "But you're never satisfied unless you win it all."

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