SAN DIEGO (AP)—Redemption couldn’t have been any sweeter for Adam Vinatieri, who was right down the middle from a lot farther out.
One of the most clutch kickers in NFL history, Vinatieri made a 51-yard field goal as time expired to lift Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts to a heart-stopping 23-20 win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday night.
Vinatieri was kicking toward the same goal posts where just more than a year ago he pushed a 29-yard field-goal attempt wide right with 1:31 left, allowing the Chargers to hold on for a 23-21 win.
Vinatieri said he heard some pregame smack talk from fans about last year’s miss.
“You can’t really change last year’s outcome, obviously, and that kick will stay with me a long time,” he said. “At least it was nice to get back out there and have another shot at it. Making that kick was pretty sweet.”
Vinatieri pumped his fist even before the ball sailed through the uprights.
“I figured it had plenty of distance and so maybe a little premature celebrating,” he said. “I was pretty guaranteed it was going through.”
Manning threw two touchdown passes for the Colts (7-4), who won their fourth straight game to remain in wild-card contention. The Colts lost center Jeff Saturday to a strained calf on the game’s third series.
The underachieving Chargers (4-7) remain desperate. The two-time defending AFC West champions have lost four of five and remain two games behind division leader Denver, which was upset 31-10 by the Oakland Raiders.
“There isn’t another 4-7 team in the league that still has a chance,” Rivers said.
It was the fourth time this season San Diego forked over the lead in the final 24 seconds, and the second time an opponent won on the final play of the game.
Manning kept the winning drive alive with a 14-yard pass to Marvin Harrison on fourth-and-inches from the Chargers’ 48-yard line. That followed a long officials’ review that took away a first down for the Colts after a 4-yard pass from Manning to Harrison.
“Our plan was to get in field-goal range on that play,” Manning said of the 14-yarder to Harrison. “I think San Diego was thinking we were going to sneak it. I’m making calls, they’re up there in a whole different front. We have a new center, a lot of controlled chaos up there. I don’t know if the ref wound the clock. I’m up there, ‘Don’t let this be the last play and there’s no time left to kick a field goal.”’
The Colts called their last timeout with 15 seconds to go. Joseph Addai ran for 1 yard and Manning then spiked the ball with 2 seconds left to set up the field goal.
“When Adam missed out here last year, I felt that if we had a chance to kick a field goal it didn’t really matter where it was from,” coach Tony Dungy said. “I thought he would make it. You just felt good about it. Adam’s a pro. I think he wanted to come out here and have a game-winner. It worked out well for us.”
It was Vinatieri’s 22nd career game-winning field goal in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime. Included on that list are two last-second kicks that won Super Bowls for the New England Patriots.
It was Manning’s 35th career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Manning seemed determined not to take a fourth straight loss to the Chargers. It was the Chargers who ended the Colts’ 2007 season with a 28-24 upset in a divisional-round playoff game.
“This was a great win tonight,” Manning said. “It’s been four good wins.”
It wasn’t easy, though.
The Colts went ahead 20-10 on Vinatieri’s 38-yard field goal with 11:48 left. That kick capped a drive kept alive by pass interference calls against defensive backs Antonio Cromartie and Clinton Hart, both on third downs.
The Chargers scored 10 straight to tie it.
Manning turned a turnover by Philip Rivers into a 17-10 lead, throwing a 1-yard touchdown pass to Dominic Rhodes on fourth-and-goal with 38 seconds left in the third quarter. Rhodes burned linebacker Stephen Cooper for the catch after he was stopped on three straight runs after the Colts had a first-and-goal at the 1.
Earlier, Manning rebounded from his own costly interception to throw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Gonzalez with 38 seconds left before halftime to pull the Colts into a 10-10 tie.
On Indianapolis’ previous possession, Manning was intercepted by Quentin Jammer at the Chargers 11.
The Chargers turned it into a 10-3 lead when Rivers hit Vincent Jackson on a 39-yard touchdown pass.
The Chargers knew they could have made up ground on Denver with a win.
“You never know how many opportunities you’re going to get,” Rivers said. “That was one where it put the ball in our court but we didn’t get it done.”
Manning completed 32 of 44 passes for 255 yards. Rivers was 24-of-31 for 288 yards.
San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson ran for 84 yards on 21 carries, giving him 11,420 yards and moving him past John Riggins for 14th place on the career list. … Hester was in because fellow rookie Mike Tolbert left with a shoulder injury.