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Monday, December 21, 2009
Emotions don't get in way of Chargers' win

SAN DIEGO -- It was early in the third quarter of a hotly contested game with huge AFC playoff ramifications. Yet, Chargers safety Eric Weddle and Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco appeared a million miles away.

During an injury timeout, Weddle approached Ochocinco -- the two men did not know each other -- and just started talking. Weddle was trying to be supportive of Ochocinco, but Weddle admitted talk also was cathartic for himself in the aftermath of the death of Bengals receiver Chris Henry.

The Cincinnati Bengals were not alone in their sorrow Sunday.

Even though they naturally assumed the role of the bad guys Sunday, the Chargers were hurting for the Bengals, who had to travel across country and play a pivotal game three days after Henry died. Henry, 26, died Thursday from head injuries he sustained Wednesday when he fell from the back of a pickup truck during a domestic dispute.

Even though the Chargers were elated to win a thrilling 27-24 game that gave them their fourth straight AFC West division title and put them on the doorstep of a first-round bye in the playoffs, they took time to reflect on Henry.

"It was tough out there," Weddle said. "I just felt like I had to say something to Chad."

Weddle is deeply religious and said he spoke from the heart to Ochocinco. The two opponents stood alone in the middle of the field for several moments.

"I just told him that we were hurting too and that we’re a football family," Weddle said. "I told Chad that as a leader, this is his time to take charge and help his teammates and Chris’ family. ... It was just something I felt I needed to do. Look, it was a huge game out there, but you can’t help but feel for the situation and realize the bigger picture.”

The Chargers didn’t exactly feel guilty about beating the Bengals. But they knew a nation was rooting against them. The Bengals were the story in the NFL on Sunday.

Trailing 24-13, the Bengals, who were listless in the third quarter, roared back with 11 points in the fourth quarter to tie the score with 54 seconds to go. However, San Diego drove down the field to set up a 52-yard field goal by Nate Kaeding with three seconds to go.

The Bengals slumped off the field in obvious despair.

"They really played hard," Weddle said. "Emotions were high all game long on both sides."

Other key developments from the game:

The Chargers are in great shape: While it certainly wasn't easy, the Chargers' mastery continued. The 11-3 Chargers have won nine straight games. They have won an NFL-record 17 consecutive December games dating to 2006.

Moments after Kaeding’s game-winning kick sent the crowd -- which was the loudest it has been in some time -- into hysterics, the Chargers got another holiday treat.

With the game playing on the jumbo screens, some Chargers players and many fans watched Oakland stun Denver. The Raiders’ big road upset dropped the Broncos to 8-6, clinching the Chargers' fourth division title in a row.

The fact that San Diego clinched the division in Week 15 is particularly remarkable considering Denver led the Chargers by 3.5 games after Week 6. Much has changed in nine weeks.

Most notably, the Chargers have been unstoppable. While they didn’t dominate Cincinnati in the fourth quarter, the Chargers once again made enough plays to win.

Just as important as winning the division title, San Diego closed in on the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and a first-round bye. If the Chargers win one more game or if New England (9-5) loses one, the Chargers will get the No. 2 seed, which would be paramount in its chase for the Super Bowl.

San Diego plays at Tennessee on Friday and then closes out the season at home against Washington. The Patriots play host to Jacksonville next week and then close out the season at Houston.

And the kick was good: Kaeding may be one of the most underrated kickers in the NFL. He shouldn’t be after Sunday.

After quarterback Philip Rivers drove the Chargers 46 yards in six plays to the Cincinnati 34, Kaeding came in and blasted the 52-yarder to win the game. Kaeding, the most accurate kicker in NFL history with a career percentage of more than 86 percent, cleared the cross bar easily.

“When I hit it I knew it was good,” Kaeding said. “There was a lot of adrenaline in that situation coming down to the wire, trying to hit it for the win and since it came off my foot I knew it was good. Mayhem ensued from there.”

Defense needs to tighten: The Chargers’ defense has had some moments of vulnerability this season. The issues crept back Sunday, especially in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati, which has had trouble scoring at points this season, dominated in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati had 314 yards passing and 114 yards rushing.

With a game against the dangerous Titans and superstar running back Chris Johnson approaching on a short week -- San Diego travels to Nashville on Wednesday for the Friday night game -- the Chargers need to iron out the kinks.

Despite the late defensive lapse, the Chargers did what it took to win another December game.

"It was hard-fought," San Diego cornerback Antonio Cromartie said. "But we went out and finished it. That’s what counts most."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Kruger downplays rave reviews for Steelers game, But teammates say he's just being modest
When Paul Kruger arrived as the Ravens' second-round pick from Utah, Terrell Suggs was clearly the leading man, a Pro Bowl linebacker who would sign a $63 million contract making him one of the highest-paid defensive players in NFL history.

But Kruger was the diligent understudy despite being inactive for seven of the first 11 games, learning his lines in case he was needed. Radio sports-talk callers and the Internet blogs and message boards clamored for Kruger to make an appearance, especially when Suggs was injured two weeks ago.

Kruger stepped into the spotlight Sunday night at M&T Bank Stadium. He picked off a pass from Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Dennis Dixon and ran it back 26 yards, leading to Billy Cundiff's 29-yard field goal and a 20-17 Ravens win in overtime against their AFC rivals.

Even standing at center stage, Kruger downplayed his rave reviews.

"It was a designed blitz," Kruger said of his pick. "They were coming from the other side. I was the dropper [in the passing lane].

"I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. My teammates did a great job getting there. It was a great call, obviously. So it was a number of things."

But Kruger's teammates seemed to feel he was far too modest in describing his interception, as well as the role he has played in filling in lately for Suggs.

"It was just an unbelievable play," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "It wasn't an easy catch. To get out and make a catch like that shows unbelievable athleticism."

Said middle linebacker Ray Lewis: "It just doesn't get any better than that. You have a young man who is just patiently waiting his turn. Can you replace a Terrell Suggs? No, unless you're replacing him with Paul Kruger. For him to come in the game at that crucial situation and to make a play that big, it shows what it means about 'next man up' around here.

"I've been praising Kruger for a long time. It was just his time."

But the long wait for that moment of glory was killing Kruger, 23. The Ravens signed him to a four-year, $3.25 million contract in July. Yet he was on the inactive list for the Ravens' first three games, against the Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers and Cleveland Browns, then played only sparingly against the New England Patriots.

He was then inactive for the Cincinnati Bengals, Minnesota Vikings and Denver Broncos games, as well as the rematch with the Bengals, before rotating into the defensive lineup the past three games against the Browns, Indianapolis Colts and Steelers.

"It's been hard all season," Kruger said of having to watch from the sideline. "I'm a competitive guy. I want to be on the field, but I respect the coaches' decision."

The Ravens' coaches said the lack of playing time was no reflection on his talent or work ethic. They said it was simply a matter of who was ahead of him on the depth chart and the defensive schemes the team was using each Sunday.

Kruger said coach John Harbaugh even approached him a few days before the Steelers game to offer encouragement.

"Just keep fighting. Keep going in practice," Kruger said Harbaugh told him. "Work hard and when I'm in there in a game, make the best of every opportunity I can."

But it was the injury to Suggs, who suffered a severe ligament sprain in his right knee from an illegal chop block by Browns quarterback Brady Quinn in the Ravens 16-0 win Nov. 16 that significantly increased Kruger's playing time.

"It's tough, especially when you're a rookie and you're behind a player like Terrell Suggs," Johnson said of Kruger's place on the depth chart. "You're a high draft pick and all that stuff. You just tell him: 'Be consistent. Focus every day.'

"You gotta use those [practice days] to get better and he's done that. The guy's done nothing but improve."

Johnson said he and other Ravens sensed Kruger's frustration from time to time during the season.

"Oh, sure, it's natural," Johnson said. "But he's kept his cool and not really said anything. I've only been down one day and I almost lost my freaking head. I almost went nuts.

"And for him to come into the situation he's been in, just numbers-wise, and there's not a whole lot he can do and just to stay as cool as he is and get better every day, that's huge."

So was the interception against the Steelers, which Kruger hopes was a sign of big things to come.

"I want to be out there," he said. "I wanted to work hard and do well in games to give Baltimore City the best team we can. So I hope it's a starting point."