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Packers fend off Chargers to maintain perfect start

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - The Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers held off a furious late fightback by the San Diego Chargers to extend their perfect start to the National Football League season with a nail-biting 45-38 victory Sunday.

Seemingly set for a crushing win when leading 45-24 in the final quarter, the Packers were stunned by two quick touchdowns as Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers twice connected with wide receiver Vincent Jackson in a 67-second span.

With the capacity crowd of 68,908 thundering its support for San Diego as they retained field advantage, the Packers nervously held on to become only the third defending Super Bowl champion to start the following season 8-0.

"It was probably a very entertaining game to watch. There was a lot of offense, no question about that," Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy told reporters after his team improved to a perfect 6-0 all-time in San Diego.

"We need to clean things up communication-wise but we're ecstatic to be 5-0 on the road this season. This is a big victory for us and we are very pleased at where we are."

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers outplayed his error-prone opposite number Rivers, completing 21 of 26 passes for 247 yards and four touchdowns on a wet, cool afternoon at Qualcomm Stadium.

Including the playoffs, the Packers have won 14 straight games -- the longest winning streak ever for the franchise.

Rodgers, who leads the league with 24 touchdown passes this season, said the Super Bowl champions were far from complacent after their perfect start.

"I don't think we're ever satisfied," he added. "Not being able to finish the game with the ball is something that we're frustrated with. It was a little bit of a struggle out there at times, but we scored when we needed to."

STRONG START

The Chargers, who began the day tied at the top of the AFC West with the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders, made a strong start when Rivers connected with Jackson for a 23-yard touchdown after an eight-play opening drive.

However, the Packers immediately responded with a matching drive of eight plays that finished with Rodgers hitting tight end Jermichael Finley for a five-yard touchdown.

San Diego made their first costly blunder when a deep pass earmarked for All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates was intercepted by safety Charlie Peprah who weaved his way through the Chargers defense for a 40-yard touchdown.

A similar play followed less than three minutes later when another Rivers pass, intended for Patrick Crayton, was picked off by Tramon Williams and returned 43 yards for a touchdown.

The Chargers regained some poise soon after with a six-play drive in steady drizzle, fullback Mike Tolbert applying the perfect finish with a bullocking eight-yard run into the end zone to pull San Diego within seven points.

A Nick Novak field goal from a career-best 52 yards, after San Diego had been heavily defended by Green Bay for 10 plays, cut the deficit to 21-17 with 4:19 left in the first half.

But Green Bay wrested back control as they relentlessly drove forward in 12 plays before Rodgers hit wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who rolled over in the right corner for a 16-yard touchdown to put his team 28-17 up at halftime.

Though the Packers increased their lead with a 47-yard field goal by Crosby, the Chargers stormed back after a 12-play drive that culminated in an 11-yard touchdown for Gates to trail 31-24 going into the final quarter.

After Rodgers connected with wide receivers James Jones and Greg Jennings for two more touchdowns, the Chargers appeared to be dead and buried but Jackson's scores from five and 29 yards within just over a minute set up the wild, breathless finish.

"When we really need to put some numbers up on the board, we can do that," 2009 Pro Bowl selection Jackson said. "It's definitely something for us to build on."

(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)