Philip Rivers' epic blunder dooms Chargers

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Philip Rivers

Philip Rivers' most recent loss might also be the most painful of his career. (AP)

With every great moment in Philip Rivers' career, every clutch win or incredible playoff run, there comes a frustrating letdown. Whether it's the playoff losses in the 2006, '07, '08 and '09 seasons or flat out missing the postseason in 2010, Rivers has been one of the NFL's poster children for unfulfilled potential.

And yet, for all those heartbreaks, it's hard to imagine Rivers enduring a worse moment than the one he had Monday night in the Chargers' 23-20 loss.

After willing his team to a game-tying drive in the fourth quarter -- a rally that would not have happened without Rivers rolling away from pressure on 3rd-and-13 from his own 35, keeping a play alive for as long as was possible, and finding Vincent Jackson for a 27-yard gain -- and following that up by moving his team down the field again on its next drive, Rivers simply blew it.

San Diego had a first down at Kansas City's 15, the game tied, the clock ticking down under a minute. All Rivers had to do was hand off or take a knee and let Nick Novak win it with a field goal. Instead, Rivers jumped the gun on a snap and the ball ricocheted to the turf.

He dove for the loose football, with Kansas City defenders flying all around him. The officials' efforts to sort the pileup seemed to take forever.

Had this been an M. Night Shyamalan movie, there would have been plenty of time for the dramatic flashbacks recapping everything that had happened to that point -- Rivers' two interceptions, Chiefs' QB Matt Cassel's own two turnovers, the Chargers struggling to score in the red zone...

It all would have set the stage for the big twist: Kansas City recovered the fumble. San Diego's victory? Gone.

The Chargers managed to force overtime by picking off another Cassel pass in the waning seconds -- Cassel's third miscue in an ugly, mistake-filled football game.

Rivers then had the first crack in overtime. That, too, more or less ended with him fumbling, this time on 2nd-and-8 when Tamba Hali flew off the edge and knocked the ball from Rivers' grip. Rivers managed to fall on that loose ball, but the Chargers could not convert on the ensuing 3rd-and-18.

They punted. Kansas City drove and won the game.

Just like that, the Chargers lost their grip on the AFC West. Had Rivers not fumbled late in the fourth quarter, giving Novak a chance to win it, San Diego could have escaped Kansas City with a 5-2 record. That would have been good enough for a one-game lead over Oakland and a two-game edge on the Chiefs -- not to mention a season sweep of the latter.

Now, the division is a downright mess. The Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers all sit at 4-3. And Kansas City has all the momentum in the world, with four straight wins.

It's hard to say either team really deserved to win Monday night. The two teams combined for eight turnovers and 21 penalties -- six on Chargers tackle Marcus McNeill alone. For the majority of the game, the question wasn't who would win, but who would avoid losing.

But then the Chiefs capped an impressive drive with a Jackie Battle touchdown plunge, and the Chargers answered with that clutch 80-yard, eight-point drive, with third-string running back Curtis Brinkley coming through on three straight plays to provide a TD and a two-point conversion.

When San Diego got the ball back in a 20-20 tie, it felt like destiny that Rivers would deliver in the clutch to eek out a win.

He more or less did, too, drilling one in to Patrick Crayton on 3rd-and-18 to get his team into field-goal range, then turning it over to Brinkley for some cushion.

Rivers was one or two plays away from killing the clock and racing home a winner. What happened instead was nearly unthinkable.

It also leaves us wondering what will happen next. This is the type of loss, especially when it comes within the division, that can absolutely kill a team. San Diego's next three games? Against Green Bay, Oakland and at Chicago. The Week 9 visit from the Packers comes on a shortened week, thanks to this Monday night appearance. The game with the Raiders is on a Thursday -- so counting Monday, the Chargers play three games in a 10-day span.

Had they stolen one in Kansas City, it may have been the catalyst for a patented San Diego second-half run.

Rivers' untimely fumble, though, pushed San Diego to the brink. Can the Chargers bounce back and win the AFC West? Will Rivers respond and turn his team around?