FOXBOROUGH - For a week their collective pain had been the source of national scrutiny, but never did they feel the need to be anything but vague.
Until yesterday, when the truth came pouring forth. There in the bowels of Gillette Stadium and out of the harsh bitter cold twilight, the San Diego Chargers put down their guard and bared their souls.
"It hurts," said Philip Rivers.
No, he wasn't talking about his injured knees. Nor was he talking about the knee injury to his team's best player, LaDainian Tomlinson, or the broken toe of All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates. No, Rivers was talking about the 21-12 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship.
"We had a chance. I know that's no consolation," said Rivers. "People didn't think it would be close, but not us. We expected to win."
That was why it hurt; because they didn't win a game they very well could have. They pointed to three trips inside the red zone that resulted in three field goals. They pointed to their inability to stifle the New England running game in the second half. They pointed to the uncanny knack the Patriots have to get the job done.
What they didn't point to were their injuries.
"It's that time of year," said Rivers, and with a wave of his hand he attempted to brush aside the sore spots. But on this day he could not, for the injuries were so significant, that others stepped forward and offered perspective.
"We had some unbelievable efforts and we laid it on the line with guys who probably shouldn't have been out there," said San Diego coach Norv Turner.
Since his team's stunning win over Indianapolis last Sunday without much second-half help from Rivers and Tomlinson, Turner had faced incessant queries about the health of his key offensive players. Tomlinson (sprained MCL, left knee) practiced just one day; Rivers (partially torn ACL, right knee) not at all. There were published reports that Rivers's injury was more serious than the team had announced and no one would have been surprised had they both been on the bench at the start.
But both were there as the Chargers took the opening kickoff and Tomlinson rushed for 3 yards on first down and 2 yards on second. If it was a bright sign for San Diego fans, it didn't last, because when the Chargers next got the ball, Tomlinson touched the ball once, gaining 1 yard on a screen pass, a play during which he pulled up.
"I hurt [the knee] on the first play of the game and I just didn't have it. I didn't have that burst," said Tomlinson, who has been the league's top rusher the last two years.
Leaving the field after the weak screen play, Tomlinson told his coaches they could use him sparingly, "but they saw I didn't have it."
Tomlinson paused, looked down at a locker-room floor strewn with dirty equipment, and shook his head.
"I thought it was wise to go with Michael Turner," he said.
Indeed, it's not a bad Plan B. Even the Patriots conceded that.
"You have to have respect for Turner and [Darren] Sproles," said New England safety Rodney Harrison. "Turner could probably [start] for 90 percent of the teams in the league, but there is only one LT."
But with No. 21 limited to two carries and 6 total yards, San Diego's woes seemed to be piled far, far too high. After all, Gates was hardly his premier self (2 catches, 17 yards), defensive tackle Jamal Williams missed large chunks of playing time, and at various points linebacker Shawne Merriman and safety Clinton Hart also went down.
Never, however, did the Chargers consider it over. Instead, they took their lead from Rivers.
"Toughest guy on the whole field today," said San Diego center Nick Hardwick.
"I don't know of anyone who could have played through that pain," said Tomlinson.
And from Tedy Bruschi, the Patriots' linebacker who knows a thing or two about overcoming health issues, there came this: "He earned my respect tonight. To come back and play the way he did, I think all of those fans of the San Diego Chargers should understand that they have a tough guy at quarterback."
Rivers completed 19 of 37 passes for 211 yards and three times marched the Chargers inside the Patriots' 10. But when he was reminded of that, Rivers winced. That was the most painful part, being that close on three occasions and coming away without a touchdown. There was a pass into the end zone that Chris Chambers caught, only to be ruled out of bounds. There was a completion to Chambers, whom Ellis Hobbs stopped at the 5. Then there was a third-and-1 play to Turner that caught the attention of Junior Seau, who made the game's key defensive play.
"That was probably as upset as I was all game," said Rivers, who made it a point to congratulate Nate Kaeding for going 4 for 4 on field goal tries. He then apologized that he hadn't carried the team in for a touchdown or two.