SAN DIEGO - It should have been impossible to make the San Diego Chargers feel worse Sunday afternoon. The New England Patriots found a way.
The Patriots, more interesting after the clocks strike :00 than during the games so far in these playoffs, upset pro football's best team and then upset their young opponents again with their celebration.
Patriots players stomped on the lightning-bolt helmet at the 50-yard line at Qualcomm Stadium. Linebacker Rosevelt Colvin flashed the choke sign toward the home sideline. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork imitated Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman's "Lights Out" dance. A few players pointed up at the scoreboard, which registered the 24-21 final score that meant the Chargers are one-and-done in the NFL playoffs and coach Marty Schottenheimer's hard luck continues.
LaDainian Tomlinson, the MVP running back, was disgusted and said so to some of the Pats right there on the field. Philip Rivers, the poised kid quarterback, ditto.
"Yes, I was upset, very upset," Tomlinson said a few minutes later.
"When you go to the middle of our field and do the things Shawne Merriman's known for, that's disrespectful. I couldn't watch that.
"They showed no class at all, absolutely no class. And maybe that comes from the head coach."
Last week, Patriots coach Bill Belichick celebrated a win over the New York Jets in the wild-card round by yanking a photographer out of his way by the throat. Now, his players, supposedly the models of professionalism as the franchise has won three of the past five Super Bowls, thumb their noses at the old rule about end-zone manners, which says to behave as if you've been there before and expect to be back.
"They won, and they deserve a lot of credit," Rivers said, easing into his response to the Patriots' showboating. "Tom (Brady) was great when he had to be great. We've seen him do that before.
"But I personally was disappointed in how they handled it. For as much as everybody said they expected them to win, they didn't act like it. ... (There was) taunting. Hey, celebrate. We'd have been sprinting on that field, too, if we'd won. But there was a little bit of finger-pointing, and I don't know where that came from.
"It was, to me, It's over, great game, you won.' It struck a nerve.
"It might not have been that big a deal. But competitors like L.T. and me hate to lose, and anything can bother you."
Rivers promised, "We'll move on."
The Patriots shouldn't have had to rub it in. That's less a criticism of the Pats than the Chargers.
Belichick's genius at taking away opponents' big weapons didn't slow down Tomlinson, who had 123 yards rushing and two touchdowns, and 64 yards on two receptions. It didn't frustrate Young Man Rivers, who was much better than his 14-for-32, 230-yard, one-interception stat line, which doesn't reflect all of the dropped passes.
The Chargers showed why they went a league-best 14-2 this season, all that talent pushing the Pats around for most of a chilly afternoon that the visitors might have called balmy.
Yet they gave the season away Sunday with those drops, some bad penalties, safety Marlon McCree's fumble after what could have been a game-clinching interception (what will happen to Schottenheimer next?), and a fourth-down gamble that blew up in their faces (what might happen to Schottenheimer next is firing).
The Chargers dominated field position for three quarters. Only to watch the Patriots cavort on their field in the end.
It ended when, after the Pats broke the 21-21 tie with Stephen Gostkowski's 31-yard kick at 1:10, the Chargers ran out of timeouts and watched Nate Kaeding's 54-yard attempt come up short and to the right.
But it was lost a dozen times, the Chargers a talented team that's a year away, desperate now for another chance.
"I don't know if it was the excitement of the game, or the hype and talk during the week," Tomlinson said. "We didn't do a good job of controlling our emotions."
Tomlinson said, in resignation: "We lost to a better team today."
That's debatable. They'll be kicking themselves all spring for giving away a chance to bury the Belichick-Brady-Patriots mystique.
The Patriots talked afterward about drawing inspiration from what happened to them last year, when their 10-game playoff winning streak ended in Denver.
"We knew it was a year ago to the day - on the West Coast, versus an AFC West team," said Colvin, who's fuzzy on geography. "This is a tough division, and we took the opportunity to do something."
They did something, all right. They earned the right to play the Indianapolis Colts for the AFC championship, and then they did a dance.
But what can the Chargers do? Do as the Patriots did, drawing fuel from this, not just from losing but from getting their faces rubbed in it.
This could be the start of a beautiful rivalry.