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Chargers Top Troubled Bengals

SAN DIEGO - For a Cincinnati Bengals team that fought to the finish while mourning the death of a teammate and for a San Diego Chargers team unfamiliar with December defeat, it came down to watching a long field goal try sail through the darkening sky in the final seconds.

When Nate Kaeding's 52-yard kick split the uprights with three seconds left, it lifted the Chargers to a 27-24 victory and the AFC West title.

"Every game, you are not going to beat a team winning by 20 or 30 points. We went out there and accomplished what we needed to accomplish," Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman said.

The Chargers (11-3) won their ninth game in a row after a 2-3 start. They also ran their December winning streak to 17 games dating to the final game of the 2005 regular season.

Coupled with the Denver Broncos loss to the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, the victory gave the Chargers their fourth consecutive AFC West crown.

There is division-title clinching work yet to be done for the AFC North-leading Bengals, who wore No. 15 decals on their helmets for a game that began with a moment of silence for wide receiver Chris Henry.

"Obviously, the game didn't finish as we had hoped. . . . Anyway, we have to move on," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.

Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco paid tearful tribute to Henry after his death last Thursday and knelt in the end zone in his honor after scoring a touchdown Sunday. He shrugged off the playoff seeding implications of the defeat.

"I'm not worried about it," Ochocinco said. "Just the fact of us being able to get into the playoffs and being able to play at home or away, I don't see it as an advantage being home."

Chargers finish fast

On a day when Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns, San Diego led 24-13 heading into the final quarter.

Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer, who passed for 314 yards and two touchdowns, brought the Bengals back in the final quarter.

When Cincinnati's Shayne Graham kicked a 34-yard field goal with 54 seconds left to cap a drive of 79 yards, the game was even at 24-24.

But without a timeout, Rivers and the Chargers got it done in less than a minute. A 20-yard pass from Rivers to Vincent Jackson gave San Diego a first down at the Cincinnati 49-yard line with 15 second left.

Two plays later, Rivers' 15-yard completion to Malcom Floyd carried to the Cincinnati 34-yard line and set up the winning kick.

Chargers defensive back Antonio Cromartie said he was confident with Rivers in command in the final minute.

"That's a great feeling," Cromartie said. "Knowing you can put the ball in Philip's hands with time left with weapons like (Antonio) Gates, (Darren) Sproles, LT (LaDainian Tomlinson) Malcom Floyd and Vincent Jackson. . . . You can give everything to Philip Rivers and let him do his job."

The Chargers finish up on the road Christmas Day at the Tennessee Titans and at home the final weekend of the regular season against the Washington Redskins.

Bengals control fate

The Baltimore Ravens, 8-6 after beating the Chicago Bears, moved within a game of the Bengals (9-5) in the AFC North.

Cincinnati is still in the driver's seat because it owns a two-game sweep of the Ravens. The Bengals finish at home Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs and the on the road the final weekend against the New York Jets.

"This was the time to have a good football game and we did. We came out here in San Diego on the road . . . and played really well," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said.

"Now we've got to go move forward and win the AFC North and get ready for the playoffs."

And the Bengals competed Sunday while carrying the burden of Henry's death. Palmer said he felt it "at different times."

"You have a job to do, and you have to focus on your job," he said. "He was with me at different times, different moments."

The Bengals were 4-11-1 last season. Whitworth said the team has turned itself around, just as Henry had done before an injury ended his season. In the past, Henry battled through a string of legal troubles, including a four-game suspension to open the 2008 season.

"Hats off to this team. The main thing is this (Henry) was a guy who had turned his life around and this football team had done the same thing," said Whitworth.

"He signifies what we are. He turned his life around and nobody thought he could. . . . Chris embodies what we are."

Henry was fatally injured last week in Charlotte. Police said he fell off the back of a moving pickup truck being operated by his fiance during a domestic dispute. The fifth-year wide receiver, had been on injured reserve since suffering a broken arm in a Nov. 8 game against the Ravens.

A funeral service will be held Tuesday near New Orleans, the area where he grew up.

Ochocinco wept last week after the death of Henry, a teammate and friend he had mentored through his off-the-field problems.

After Ochocinco hauled in a 49-yard pass reception in the second quarter Sunday, he dropped to his knees to remember Henry.

Ochocinco tapped his heart at he walked off the field. When he got to the bench, he put a towel over his head and wept again.

"I felt really nervous today, really nervous. I usually have butterflies before a game, but today felt different. . . . It was sort of like an empty feeling, and I think a lot of people don't understand," said Ochocinco.

The receiver considered wearing Henry's No. 15 jersey for the game. He decided against it.

"I talked about wearing the jersey and things of that nature that outsiders don't understand. It was bigger than football. . . . I can't even explain it. but it was hard man. You have somebody like that that you take under your wing for five years, and you see him hit that turn and turn the right way."

Why didn't he wear the jersey? "You had certain media types that had the nerve to say I was making the situation about me. . . . and to hear the NFL say they would still fine me for a situation like this. Are you serious?" Ochocinco said.

"Everybody grieves a different way. My way would have been out there wearing that jersey. . . . (But) if I wore it today, I'm sure it would have been spun into a negative, that's why (decided not to do it). . . . I went out there and I played with an extra set of hands."

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