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For Philip Rivers and Chargers, season finale has wild ramifications

Philip Rivers and Chargers to face Chiefs with a playoff spot on the line

The San Diego Chargers fight to the finish, even when they're already done.

Since Philip Rivers took over as starting quarterback in 2006, the Chargers are 8-0 in regular-season finales. They ultimately lose in the playoffs, but have a pristine record in Week 17 games.

"What I'm most proud of about that is when we won in those years when we'd already been eliminated," Rivers said in a phone interview. "On the outside, it's a meaningless game. But there's really no such thing."

Sunday's Chargers finale is anything but meaningless. If they win at Kansas City, they're in the postseason as a wild-card team. They faced a strikingly similar situation last season, when they had to beat the Chiefs in San Diego to get in and, like last year, Kansas City will be without starting quarterback Alex Smith.

The Chiefs announced Friday that Smith would sit out the game because of a lacerated spleen. Stepping in will be Chase Daniel, whose only start came against the Chargers in last season's finale.

Those 2013 Chiefs already had secured a playoff berth and were resting 20 of 22 starters. What's more, they were playing on the road against a team that needed to win to reach the postseason for the first time in four years. Yet, Daniel and the Chiefs gave the Chargers all they could handle before losing in overtime, 27-24.

Sunday, the Chiefs need to win and get home losses by Baltimore (versus Cleveland) and Houston (versus Jacksonville) to qualify for the postseason.

"Quite honestly, I wouldn't rather have it any other way than to be put in a situation to go out there with everything on the line," Daniel told reporters Friday. "You have to win to get in and, obviously, we need some help, but what we're focused on is winning the game."

The 6-foot Daniel, who spent three of his five NFL seasons learning behind Drew Brees in New Orleans, leans on the elusiveness that made him a standout at Missouri. Against the Chargers last season, he completed 21 of 30 passes for 200 yards and a touchdown, and ran seven times for 59 yards.

Less mobile but vastly more experienced is Rivers, who is coming off a masterful performance at San Francisco, a game in which he rebounded from three first-half interceptions, twice digging the Chargers out of 21-point holes before leading them to a 38-35 victory in overtime. The Chargers are 34-8 in December and January regular-season games Rivers has started.

Against the 49ers, Rivers faced two fourth-and-long situations in the score-tying drive at the end of regulation. He answered with two completions for 17 yards each, one to Eddie Royal and one to Dontrelle Inman, whose first NFL catch had come in the game.

Despite the three interceptions, Rivers was typically bold with his throws down the stretch, including an 11-yard touchdown pass to Malcom Floyd with 32 seconds left in regulation.

"We always call it a game of inches," Rivers said. "But Eddie Royal's catch on that fourth down, there were fingertips that were literally two inches from tipping that ball. Same thing on the touchdown. You think, if one of those balls would have gotten tipped, we're going to Kansas City for the last game of the year with no playoffs on the line, none of it. It's crazy."

Rivers said he has gotten better over the years at putting bad plays behind him, and refusing to doubt himself and alter his throws.

"I'll admit, earlier in my career, I would have been like, 'Shoot, don't throw another interception,' " he said. "It would have gotten to the point where you kind of play everything close to the vest and say, 'Oh, shoot, I can't mess up anymore.'

"Going through some games where you haven't been very good, and going through some tough times allows you to develop the mentality to overcome those and move on. I've always understood that, but you get better and better at it.

"You hope you don't have a ton of those games where you throw three picks in the first half, but you've got to go and keep moving on. Keep ripping it."

Even with that victory, the Chargers needed help to be in their win-and-they're-in position. That came in the form of Houston's 25-13 victory over Baltimore the next day.

Rivers watched that game at home with his 6-year-old son Gunner, the two briefly transformed into the world's biggest Texans fans.

"Gunner is so into it in general," Rivers said. "I said, 'Hey, if Houston wins, we get to go to Kansas City and if we win, we get into the playoffs.' So we didn't change the channel off that Houston game. We watched every play. An incompletion by Baltimore and we were like, 'Yeah! All right! Second and long!' It was crazy. The Texans would get a stop or an interception and Gunner's jumping up on the couch and stuff.

"There's a lot of reasons we were watching it, but honestly, it was a good, father-son, three hours of watching football. With a lot more on the line than just the average fan."

For the Chargers, there's no need Sunday to study the playoff scenarios or pull for other teams.

"You win, you play again," said Rivers, who has been bothered by a bulging disk in his back but was able to practice all last week and said he has experienced a "night and day" improvement from the previous week. "You lose, you come in here for an exit meeting on Monday."

If history is a guide, Rivers will be ready.

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