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McCardell ends shaky season on solid ground

If it had been a typical game, if it had been a typical season, Keenan McCardell might not have played Saturday night.

He had missed three weeks with an injured hamstring, and in a candid moment last week, he acknowledged he probably should miss a fourth.

But in this, his 13th season, McCardell had learned how it feels to have to prove himself all over again. During a protracted holdout with the Bucs that started in the summer and dragged deep into the fall, McCardell's character was questioned for the first time. A player who long had been hailed for his leadership qualities was portrayed as another spoiled star.

When Tampa Bay traded McCardell to San Diego on Oct. 19 for two middle-round draft picks, he was intent on restoring his reputation with an organization that had accumulated its share of baggage. McCardell, who turned 35 on Thursday, became a vocal presence on one of the youngest teams in the league, solidified a shaky receiver corps and helped the Chargers learn how to win again.

One of only 15 players on the roster with playoff experience, and one of the few with meaningful playoff experience, McCardell spent the week leading up to the wild-card game reminding teammates to mellow their excitement. When they failed to follow orders in the first quarter against the Jets on Saturday night, he tried to settle their nerves with a 26-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter that demonstrated his calm.

Still, San Diego showed its vast inexperience much of the game, looking jittery at the start and panicky in the middle, but it came back from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to tie the score and send the game to overtime, where it lost 20-17.

But McCardell might have appeared comfortable at Qualcomm Stadium because it was where he caught two touchdowns when the Bucs beat the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII two years ago.

At that point, McCardell was the toast of Tampa Bay. A year later, he asked for a substantial raise over the $2-million he was scheduled to earn in 2004. When the Bucs refused, McCardell vowed to sit out the entire season.

After he was finally dealt, the Chargers did not renegotiate McCardell's contract, but they did give him an opportunity for revenge. Tampa Bay visited San Diego on Dec. 12, and though McCardell left the game with the hamstring injury that would keep him out three weeks, the Chargers still won and McCardell still came back for the playoffs.

JETS: Coach Herman Edwards got into a shouting match with running backs coach Bishop Harris during the third quarter of their overtime victory against the Chargers. They almost came to blows and though Edwards declined to specify why they were arguing, at the time of the fight LaMont Jordan was carrying the ball instead of NFL rushing champion Curtis Martin.

Fullback Jerald Sowell had to restrain the coaches. After walking away, Harris said something else and Edwards turned back toward his assistant.

On Sunday, Edwards said everything was fine with Harris. "The other side came out of me, the side that I have in me at times. It shocked a lot of people to see."

SEAHAWKS: The team heads into the offseason with 16 players _ nine starters _ as unrestricted free agents, including quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, tackle Walter Jones and running back Shaun Alexander. It has about $30-million in cap space, but it's a stretch to think everyone will return.

"It will be our hope and our effort to keep our core together the best way we can," said coach Mike Holmgren, who led Green Bay to a Super Bowl title but is 0-3 in the playoffs during his six seasons in Seattle. There were rumblings during the season Holmgren might be on his way out. He has two years left on the $32-million contract he signed in 1999.

ROAD WINS

For the second time since the AFL-NFL merger in 1966, three visiting teams won in one playoff round this past weekend. The other time was in 1971, before the NFL went to a seeding system. The lone home team that won is in bold:

1971 (conference semifinals)

AFC

Dolphins 27, Chiefs 24 (2OT)

Colts 20, Browns 3

NFC

Cowboys 20, Vikings 12

49ers 24, Redskins 20

2004 (wild-card round)

AFC

Jets 20, Chargers 17 (OT)

Colts 49, Broncos 24

NFC

Rams 27, Seahawks 20

Vikings 31, Packers 17

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