QB Philip Rivers (Chris McGrath/Getty)
It hurts, sure it does. The Chargers know they were close to their second Super Bowl appearance and upending one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- teams in NFL history.
That is what will stick with the Chargers as they head for an offseason full of what ifs in the wake of Sunday's 21-12 loss to the Patriots in the AFC title game.
What if the Chargers would have been at full-strength, rather than LaDainian Tomlinson not touching the ball after the first quarter and Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates playing with injuries.
What if the Chargers could have converted at least one of their three trips inside the red zone into something other than Nate Kaeding field goals?
What if they would have gone for a first down when on the Patriots' 36 with about nine minutes to play when needing 10 yards for a fresh set of downs. Instead, coach Norv Turner elected to punt the ball and the Chargers never got another possession.
All that will be maddening, especially with the Chargers having to watch the Patriots take on the Giants and Eli Manning in the Super Bowl.
The Chargers could be there instead, sticking it to Manning after he stuck it to the franchise on draft day four years ago.
But at least the Chargers were able to bounce back from a 1-3 start and go man-to-man with the Patriots on a day better suited for penguins and polar bears. There has to be some satisfaction in that, right?
"We went into (the New England) game thinking what we were going to win," Turner said. "There is no real consolation in coming close."
As the season came to a close and the players cleared out their lockers Monday, it became apparent the offseason will be full of rehabbing to some of the team's top players.
Rivers has a torn ACL in his right knee and will have to undergo an operation which could take at least six months to rebound from.
Tomlinson has a sprained MCL in his left knee and is hoping to avoid the knife. He is going to rest his leg and is looking forward to getting better without a surgery.
Gates is in a similar situation as Tomlinson, hoping rest for his banged-up big toe -- which was dislocated in the playoffs' first round -- will do wonders as well.
Still, the Chargers will spend a fair amount of time playing the what-if game.
"We'll look back on it and be proud of a lot this year," Rivers said. "But you're never satisfied unless you win it all."
--QB Philip Rivers knows he has a challenging offseason ahead in bouncing back from a serious knee injury. "It's gone," he said of the ACL in his right leg. "I don't know exactly the details on that (surgery), but I'll be ready by training camp."
--RB LaDainian Tomlinson was baffled why some people were piling on him for not playing more Sunday after early indication -- two rushes and a catch -- told him there was no explosiveness behind his steps because of a sprained MCL in his left knee.
"After all the injuries I've played through for this team I can't believe that all of a sudden I'm not tough," said Tomlinson, the NFL's leading rusher the past two years. "Do you think I wanted to sit on the sidelines during the championship game? No way. That's ridiculous."
--CB Antonio Cromartie, who had a pick of Tom Brady on Sunday, said the Chargers needed just a few more. "We just needed a few more turnovers," he said. The Chargers did interception Brady three times -- the last time he was so sloppy with the ball was in last season's playoff defeat of the Chargers.
--C Nick Hardwick said the Chargers showed a lot of fortitude in the loss. "We have a lot of guts and a lot of character," he said. "We have a lot of upside on us."
--The Chargers have now lost three of the four AFC title games they have played in. The one win came when they defeated the Steelers in the 1994 season game. QB Stan Humphries was the team's leader that day and they brought him back Sunday as an honorary captain to take part in the pre-game coin flip. But it didn't help.
--K Nate Kaeding was stellar in hitting all four of his field goal attempts, but he was consistently short on his kickoffs because of a bruised leg. He expects to be better with offseason rest.
--FB Lorenzo Neal was active for the first time since breaking his leg in December, but him being active meant kickoff specialist Dave Rayner couldn't play.
--DT Jamal Williams hopes to avoid offseason surgery on his chronic sprained ankle.
--RB Michael Turner helped his stock with two fine games in the playoffs. LaDainian Tomlinson's backup is a free agent and figures to get plenty of attention -- including from the Bears; Turner grew up Illinois.