SAN DIEGO — By the time the San Diego Chargers could exhale, they had clinched their fourth straight AFC West title as well as pulling out a dramatic win over the grieving Cincinnati Bengals.
Yes, it was a crazy several minutes at Qualcomm late Sunday afternoon.
Nate Kaeding kicked a 52-yard field goal with 3 seconds left and the Chargers rallied for a 27-24 win over the Bengals, who got a tying 34-yard field goal by Shayne Graham 51 seconds earlier.
A few minutes after the Chargers (11-3) secured their ninth straight victory, and with several thousand fans still in the stadium, the Chargers clinched the division when Denver lost to Oakland.
“It’s all kind of a blur,” said Kaeding, who hadn’t yet gotten a division championship cap until team president Dean Spanos walked by in the locker room and gave the kicker his.
Some Chargers watched on TV as the Broncos, who led the Chargers by 31⁄2 games on Oct. 19, lost 20-19 to the Raiders.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” star outside linebacker Shawne Merriman said.
The Chargers improved to 17-0 in December since 2006.
Kaeding’s winning kick came after Philip Rivers moved the Chargers 46 yards in 51 seconds with no timeouts and backup center Dennis Norman snapping after Scott Mruckzkowski sprained an ankle.
“We just did what we had to do to get it done,” said Rivers, who threw three touchdown passes, two to Vincent Jackson.
“Philip’s the man. I wouldn’t want anybody else under center there for us,” said Kaeding, who added that it was one of his biggest kicks.
“There was a lot of adrenaline in that kind of situation, coming down to the wire and going for the win,” Kaeding said. “Once it came off my foot, I knew it was good, and mayhem ensued from there.”
San Diego clinched a playoff spot before halftime because of other results.
Cincinnati (9-5), which failed for the second straight week to clinch the AFC North, was playing three days after the death of receiver Chris Henry. He died Thursday, a day after falling out of the back of a pickup truck during what police described as a domestic dispute with his fiancee in Charlotte, N.C. Henry was on injured reserve and out for the season.
“The main thing we want people to realize is that Chris is a guy who turned his life around and this football team had done the same thing,” tackle Andre Whitworth said. “He signifies what we are.”
After Chad Ochocinco caught a 49-yard touchdown pass from Carson Palmer to give the Bengals a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter, the receiver got down on both knees and touched his heart with his right hand.“It was a little empty feeling,” Ochocinco said. “It was bigger than football without him. Today I played with an extra set of hands, an extra set of legs and an extra heart.”
The Bengals wore decals with Henry’s No. 15 on their helmets. Several Bengals fans brought signs remembering Henry, including a simple “RIP 15.”
Quarterback Carson Palmer said he’s never experienced four days like the Bengals have, calling Henry’s death and then having to play a game “almost surreal.” He said it won’t sink in until the team attends Henry’s funeral on Tuesday.
The Bengals appeared to be driving for a go-ahead touchdown, but then were lucky to get in their tying field goal.
On first-and-16 from the San Diego 25, Andre Caldwell caught a pass from Palmer, was hit by Eric Weddle and then linebacker Tim Dobbins used his helmet to knock the ball out of his hands and it sailed back to the 45, where Palmer jumped on it. Palmer got the Bengals into field goal range with two completions.
Trailing 14-13 midway through the third quarter, Palmer missed Ochocinco and the ball went right to cornerback Quentin Jammer.
Two plays later, Jackson got behind cornerback Leon Hall to haul in a 34-yard TD pass that put San Diego up 21-13.
Kaeding added a 33-yard field goal for an 11-point lead.
Keith Rivers intercepted Philip Rivers early in the fourth quarter to set up Palmer’s 2-yard TD pass to Laveranues Coles and Palmer’s conversion run to make it 24-21.
Jackson had five catches for 108 yards, giving him his second straight 1,000-yard season.