DENVER -- The Chargers had played Denver about as well as anyone during the regular season, splitting the season series with their AFC West rivals and being outscored by only one point (48-47) in the two games.
This time, though, it looked like a blowout. Denver took a 17-point lead with less than nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter Sunday, and it looked as if the Chargers' season would end with a whimper.
But Philip Rivers' touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen, his second of the quarter, made it a 10-point game. Then the Chargers recovered an onside kick and kicked a field goal to make it a one-score game with 3:53 to play.
Could it be?
"As long as there's time left on the clock, we're going to play until the bitter end," Chargers coach Mike McCoy said after Denver's 24-17 victory. " 'Fight to the bitter end.' That's what we've said all along. A lot of our games have come down to the very end the whole season. Keep fighting, keep going and see what happens at the end. Put yourself in position to win it at the end."
Not this time.
After eschewing another onside kick after the field goal, the Chargers had the Broncos in a third-and-17 situation at the Denver 20. But Peyton Manning completed a 21-yard pass to tight end Julius Thomas to keep the drive going, and the Chargers never got another chance to tie the game.
So ends a Chargers season in which they were 5-7 and teetering on the brink of elimination before winning their final four games and clinching a playoff berth on the final day.
The Chargers beat the Bengals, 27-10, last week to reach the divisional round against the Broncos, whom they'd beaten, 27-20, last month in Denver.
"It feels worse now than the past three years," Rivers said. "We were one of eight teams left. Every team is going to feel like we do today besides the one team that wins it all. We have nothing to be ashamed of. We fought together, played together, the way we compete, and the character of this team allows us to hold our heads high. To bounce back from 5-7 and get in this position is nothing to be ashamed of."
The Chargers couldn't use the formula that allowed them to beat Denver in their last meeting. With starting tailback Ryan Mathews limited by a sprained ankle, the Chargers couldn't rely on the ground game that had allowed them to earn a big advantage in time of possession and keep Manning off the field.
"We didn't take advantage on our possessions," Rivers said. "We would have it there at midfield, and we wouldn't do anything with it. We weren't very efficient on third down (4-of-12) and we didn't manage first and second down all that great. We weren't in a rhythm."