At the time, Norv Turner seemed an odd choice to take over a San Diego Chargers team that had struggled in the playoffs. Tony Dungy’s credentials were once questioned too, but hiring him has worked out brilliantly for the Indianapolis Colts.
A year after debunking his reputation as a coach who couldn’t win big games, Dungy and the defending champion Colts begin postseason play against Turner and the Chargers in the AFC divisional playoffs Sunday.
Dungy was fired by Tampa Bay after three straight playoff losses, including a defeat in the 2000 NFC championship game, but was given another chance to be a head coach by Indianapolis in 2002. He rewarded the Colts by guiding them to a Super Bowl title last season.
Now three wins away from a repeat, AFC South champion Indianapolis (13-3) comes off a first-round bye to face a team that made an offseason coaching change, one that seemed to have been based purely on poor postseason performance. San Diego replaced Marty Schottenheimer - one of the most maligned playoff coaches in NFL history - with Turner, who was 24 games under .500 in two previous stints as a head coach.
Turner, though, seems to have turned the corner this season. He led San Diego (12-5) to its first playoff win in 13 years, 17-6 over Tennessee in the wild-card round last Sunday for its seventh straight victory.
That win snapped a four-game playoff losing streak for the Chargers that dated to the 1994 season. Two of those defeats occurred under Schottenheimer during the previous three seasons, including last year’s 24-21 loss to New England in the divisional round.
The Chargers came into that game as the top seed in the AFC and riding a 10-game winning streak. The defeat to the Patriots, though, was Schottenheimer’s sixth in a row in the playoffs.
“That first one’s the hardest one,” said Turner, who improved to 2-1 in the postseason. “Just like when you start a game sometimes, that first score is the hardest one to get and then you get going. Hopefully this jump-starts all of us.”
When the Chargers started 1-3, Turner’s critics seemed justified. But AFC West champion San Diego has gone 11-2 since, including a 23-21 win over Indianapolis at Qualcomm Stadium on Nov. 11 - a game the Colts would like to forget.
The Chargers also won in Indianapolis in 2005 to deal the Colts their first loss of the season in their 14th game.
“I think they’ve definitely had our number the last couple of times we played them, but I don’t think that will be the case Sunday,” Indianapolis middle linebacker Gary Brackett said.
The Colts were missing several starters due to injury in this season’s meeting with the Chargers, including receivers Marvin Harrison and Anthony Gonzalez, tight end Dallas Clark, left tackle Tony Ugoh and linebackers Freddy Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler. Indianapolis also lost three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney and right tackle Ryan Diem during the game because of injuries.
Freeney is on injured reserve after having foot surgery, but the rest of those players are expected to play Sunday. Harrison’s return will be particularly welcome after he hurt his left knee against Denver on Sept. 30 and missed all but one game since.
Indianapolis’ offense has had another outstanding season despite Harrison’s absence, ranking third in the NFL with 28.1 points per game. Manning recorded his eighth 4,000-yard passing season, and Reggie Wayne has been the main beneficiary, putting together a career year with 104 receptions for 1,510 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Manning and the passing offense have been complemented by a ground game led by Joseph Addai, who’s rushed for 1,072 yards and 12 TDs.
The Colts, though, will face a defensive scheme that has given them problems.
Indianapolis’ track record against 3-4 defenses, including two losses to San Diego, is subpar. Pittsburgh eliminated the Colts from the playoffs in the 2005 season, and New England did the same in 2003 and ’04. Indianapolis averaged 12.6 points in those contests.
The Colts have lost 10 of their last 11 against the Steelers, and are 3-5 versus the Patriots since Dungy was hired.
“I don’t know that we’ve had trouble with the 3-4, we’ve had trouble with teams that play the 3-4 who have good players and can have four guys come in at any time without having to blitz and still be in man coverage,” Dungy said. “There are a lot of variations of it, and it can cause you problems.”
San Diego got two stellar individual defensive efforts in its last two wins over Indianapolis. Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie, making his first NFL start, had three of his NFL-high 10 interceptions in November’s matchup with the Colts. That performance helped the second-year pro earn a spot on The Associated Press 2007 NFL All-Pro team Wednesday.
In San Diego’s 26-17 win over Indianapolis on Dec. 18, 2005, Chargers linebacker Shawn Merriman - then a rookie - sacked Manning twice and forced a crucial intentional grounding penalty.
“I think they’re going to take a different approach this game, we’re going to take a different approach and go out there and see what happens,” said Merriman, a Pro Bowler who has 39 1/2 sacks in 42 games. “We’re going to get their best shot and they’re going to get ours and I think it’s going to be a great game.”
Cromartie and Merriman are two cornerstones of a San Diego defense that ranked fifth in the NFL in scoring defense during regular season, allowing 17.8 points per game.
Indianapolis, though, had the NFL’s top-ranked scoring defense, yielding 16.4 points per game following last postseason’s surprisingly strong defensive effort.
Despite missing one of the NFL’s best pass rushers in Freeney, the Colts have held five of their last seven opponents under 20 points. They’re led by safety Bob Sanders, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Sanders set career-highs in tackles (132), sacks (3 1/2) and interceptions (two). With him anchoring the secondary, no quarterback has thrown for more than 260 yards against Indianapolis this season.
“We’re no longer the no-name Colts defense. He’s a game-changer,” Brackett said of Sanders. “But his presence gives us a comfort level, knowing he’s going to be back there to clean up for us.”
Sanders is a do-it-all safety, versatile enough to cover receivers deep and be a force against the run. Sanders’ assignments Sunday should be varied against a dynamic Chargers offense that features unanimous All-Pro pick LaDainian Tomlinson.
Tomlinson led the league with 1,474 yards and 15 TDs on the ground, while finishing second on San Diego with 60 receptions for 475 yards. Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal, who clears many of Tomlinson’s running lanes, was also named to the All-Pro team.
Neal hasn’t played since breaking his lower left leg in an overtime win at Tennessee on Dec. 9, but Turner said he will practice this week and should be able to play Sunday.
San Diego’s biggest injury concern is three-time All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates, who injured his left big toe in last week’s victory and is uncertain for this game.
Gates said Sunday that the toe was dislocated, but San Diego insists it’s sprained. He led the Chargers in the regular season with 75 receptions for 984 yards and nine touchdowns, although he was held to three catches for 26 yards against the Colts in November.
This will be the second playoff meeting between Indianapolis and San Diego. The Colts beat the Chargers 35-20 on Dec. 31, 1995 in a wild-card game.