In unordinary circumstances, Chargers show they're extraordinary

SAN DIEGO -- No conversation about the San Diego Chargers goes very far before the word "talent" comes up.

They're loaded with it, the pundits insist. Philip Rivers ... Antonio Gates ... Vincent Jackson ... LaDainian Tomlinson ... Shawne Merriman ... Shaun Phillips ... Luis Castillo.

So many playmakers. So many individuals recognized for being among the very best in the NFL at their respective positions.

That, according to those who write and talk about the Chargers, is the primary reason that they're 11-3 and riding a nine-game winning streak and clinched their fourth consecutive AFC West title Sunday.

But if you spend a little time around those Chargers stars, you quickly discover that they don't share the pundits' perspective.

"When they talk about us, I just want us to be talked about as a team," Gates said. "When they talk about us, they say, 'We've got the most talent.' They never really talk about how good of a team we are. Talent is only one part of it.

"I remember when the Patriots had their run, when they were winning those (three) Super Bowls (in four seasons), everyone was always talking about how good a team they were. And our focus now is just trying to be the best San Diego Chargers team. We've done so many things individually. Now, the goal for us is to just go out and try to be the best team that we can possibly be."

One way you achieve that is to rebound from a 2-3 start and go on a tear that establishes you as one of the hottest clubs in the league, if not the hottest. A genuine team figures out how to pull itself together. A genuine team knows how to win in a variety of ways; sometimes it relies on a quick-striking offense, sometimes it relies on a defense to make turnovers and/or key stops, sometimes it leans on special teams to make the difference.

The Chargers have done it all during their 9-0 run. They did it all during Sunday's 27-24 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals that kept them in the driver's seat for the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs.

This was no ordinary game. Besides the postseason implications, it came only days after the Bengals learned of the death of one of their own, wide receiver Chris Henry. Fueled by raw emotion, the Bengals gave an inspired performance.

But the Chargers found enough collective emotion of their own to overcome the fact that they allowed the Bengals to hang around the entire game and eventually won on a field goal in the final seconds.

That's what genuine teams do. Meet challenges. Respond when and where it has to.

"That's the resiliency of this group, the character that we've built over the last two or three years," free safety Eric Weddle said.

Sure, the Chargers have sent nearly a dozen players to the Pro Bowl during that time. But they've also come to the realization that they'll be able to accomplish so much more when they function as a unit.

That involves sacrifice, a player willing to give up the chance for impressive statistics in order to allow a teammate to do so because it's going to enhance the chances for victory.

"It's just about us doing the things we can do together ... whether it's me trying to make blocks for LT or trying to draw a safety for Vincent," Gates said. "Whatever it is, I understand the bigger picture now. Some days, it might not be my day. Vincent had a huge game (Sunday, catching two touchdown passes to Gates' one), but in Cleveland (two weeks ago), I had a big day.

"It's one of those things where you have to give a little to get a whole bunch."

Such an approach lets you go into the Dallas Cowboys' brand-new stadium and go home with a win largely decided by a dramatic goal-line stand.

It also allows you to withstand the repeated surges of a Bengals team that so desperately wanted to honor the memory of a beloved friend with a win. The Chargers fully understood what they were up against Sunday. They simply refused to allow it to get the better of them.

Afterward, they were respectful in addressing the Henry factor, but they also couldn't deny how well they held up their end.

"Of course, with Chris Henry passing, they had a little bit of extra emotion out there and they played a little bit harder," Merriman said. "We have got to give them credit ... but we went out and got it done."

The expectation is that the Chargers will continue to get it done. It's hard to say that any team is hotter than the 14-0 Indianapolis Colts, but the Chargers have certainly done enough to make it an interesting debate. You can say the top-seeded Colts have the most direct path to Super Bowl XLIV, with two games at Lucas Oil Stadium. But you can also say (and plenty of people around the league have) that no one is eager to cross paths with the Chargers.

Things don't get any easier from here. They have a short week of preparation before facing the Titans, fresh from an overtime win against Miami, in a Christmas night road game on NFL Network, but no challenge looks too large for this team because that's exactly what it is: A team.

They aren't a bunch of players concerned only with pumping up their statistics so they can be voted to another Pro Bowl. They're more worried with what they did wrong, such as the various mistakes and letdowns that helped the Bengals roar back from an 11-point deficit in the third quarter to bring about a white-knuckle finish.

"We're playing really well right now, but also there are a lot of things that we can get better at," Weddle said. "We've got to get better, but we feel like we can play with anyone ... as long as we continue to grow and stick together."

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