DENVER -- The season was over, but Philip Rivers wasn't done. The San Diego Chargers quarterback worked his way around the visitors' locker room, shaking nicked hands, patting sore backs, massaging aching shoulders and soothing bruised egos.
Although the Chargers had lost, 24-17, to the top-seeded Denver Broncos in a hard-fought divisional playoff game, Rivers wanted to thank his teammates for a job well done.
"It's one of those deals where you have an opportunity to tell the guys how much you appreciate them and what a heck of a run it was," Rivers said. "When you fight, you prepare, you battle and you compete, you've got nothing to be ashamed of."
That was the feeling that pervaded the Chargers' locker room. Yes, they were devastated that their improbable run had come to an end. But after clawing back from the brink of elimination to make the playoffs and advance to the second round, they had a lot to feel good about.
"This locker room's got a ton to be proud of," veteran center Nick Hardwick said. "In one year, we've really turned it around. Guys have a real good spirit about them now. We fought till the end. Guys were fighting until they couldn't fight anymore."
The Chargers missed the postseason from 2010-12, and it appeared they'd make it 0 for 4 when they lost to the Bengals to fall to 5-7. But San Diego kept pushing, pieced together a four-game winning streak, eked into the playoffs and turned Mike McCoy's first season into an undeniable success.
"We became a team in a hurry this year," McCoy said. "It's not something that just happens overnight. It's something that they've built over time, and it showed a lot about them, the way that they care about one another. We've got a good group of guys."
The way the game unfolded Sunday mirrored the Chargers' season: They fell into a hole and just about dug their way out of it.
Denver built a 17-0 lead through three quarters on the strength of two Peyton Manning touchdown passes, a relentless rushing attack and a defense that prevented the Chargers from playing the ball-control game they used to upset the Broncos here in Week 15.
But after cornerback Chris Harris got hurt, Rivers found success by attacking ex-Charger Quentin Jammer. Rivers connected with Keenan Allen for a pair of touchdown passes, the second one making it 24-14 with 5:43 remaining.
After recovering an onside kick, San Diego drove for a field goal to make it 24-17. At that point, the pressure shifted back to Manning.
No one in these playoffs is under more intense scrutiny than the Broncos' veteran quarterback, whose resume features one brilliant regular season after another -- but far too many postseason disappointments for a player of his caliber. Those failures include last season's divisional-round home loss to Baltimore, in which Denver played it safe when it could have put the game away.
So when the Broncos needed to convert a third-and-17 to keep the Chargers from getting the ball back with a chance to tie, they put it in Manning's hands. He hit Julius Thomas for 21 yards, then found Thomas again for 9 yards on third-and-6. The Chargers never regained possession.
"I feel like that game last year forced us to address those types of situations all season long," Manning said. "Rivers got hot there in the second half. I did not want to give him the ball back. There was some real want-to on our offense's part to stay on the field on that last series."
Now Manning heads into another matchup with Tom Brady and the Patriots in next Sunday's AFC Championship Game. It's the 15th time the future Hall of Famers have met, the fourth time in the playoffs.
Neither Manning nor Broncos coach John Fox was ready to talk about New England, however. They had just been through a skirmish and needed time to decompress.
The Broncos knew the Chargers would give them a fight, and in the fourth quarter they did. San Diego just needed one more stop and couldn't get it.
"We're extremely disappointed. We're hurting," said safety Eric Weddle, who attributed Thomas' being wide open on the critical third-and-17 play to a "miscommunication."
"But for this team to fight, down 17-0, it could've easily been a blowout. We stuck with it, kept believing in each other, sticking by each other.
"It just shows the character we have on this team, that we're never going to give up. Hopefully that character, that toughness, is going to stick with us for years to come."
(c)2014 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
Visit The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) at www.ocregister.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services