SAN DIEGO – Midway through a game that meant everything to a frustrated franchise, exactly nothing was going according to plan for the San Diego Chargers.
Heavy favorites in Sunday's first-round playoff clash against the Tennessee Titans at Qualcomm Stadium, the Chargers were getting manhandled on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Tennessee had outgained San Diego 178-94 in the first two quarters, with just six of those yards coming from star halfback LaDainian Tomlinson. The Titans led by six points, and it could have been much worse.
It was even raining in America's Finest City.
With a 13-year playoff victory drought spooking the 65,640 fans at Qualcomm and Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates knocked out by a toe injury, the Chargers sat in their locker room at halftime, listened as their coaches made a few strategic adjustments and calmly prepared to fight their way into the divisional round by any means necessary.
San Diego's response, a 17-6 triumph over the Titans that will send the Chargers to Indianapolis to face the defending Super Bowl champion Colts next Sunday, was an emphatic declaration that this team is no longer haunted by last season's playoff flameout. Unlike the 24-21 defeat to the New England Patriots in the same stadium last January, this was a game in which the Chargers were poised and clutch when they needed to be.
And just as former coach Marty Schottenheimer received a large share of blame for that defeat, ultimately getting fired in February after losing a power struggle with general manager A.J. Smith, replacement Norv Turner deserves credit for cultivating an atmosphere in which his players stayed cool in the face of adversity.
During that miserable first half, when the Chargers could have felt vulnerable and questioned their plan, the mood was resolute and businesslike.
"Nobody blinked," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "We've been through so much this season. It didn't get too big for us. Nobody panicked."
It's not surprising that Rivers, who completed 19 of 30 passes for 292 yards and a touchdown, viewed the team's second-half comeback as a metaphor for its season. Even before the Chargers played a game, the departures of Schottenheimer and coordinators Wade Phillips and Cam Cameron had many people questioning whether they could come close to matching their 14-2 regular season of '06.
Turner, with a 59-83-1 career record as a head coach, was viewed skeptically even by many of the Chargers' players – and those feelings intensified after the team absorbed a 38-14 defeat to the Patriots on the season's second weekend. San Diego struggled to a 1-3 start and was 5-5 in mid-November before the eventual AFC West champs closed the season with a six-game winning streak, including a 23-17 overtime victory over the Titans in Nashville.
As with that game, in which Tennessee held a 17-3 lead in the fourth quarter, the Titans took it to the Chargers from the start. They pounded the ball with halfback LenDale White, who gained 61 of his 69 yards in the first half, and second-year quarterback Vince Young shook off a strained quadriceps and played efficient, mistake-free football for most of the day. The Titans' bruising, swarming defense kept Tomlinson in check.
The Titans fielded the opening kickoff and marched 61 yards on 13 plays, taking a 3-0 lead on a 30-yard field goal by Rob Bironas. In eight previous home games the Chargers had outscored opponents in the first quarter 81-0, but Tennessee launched two impressive drives in the period. Two minutes into the second quarter, the Titans were 9 yards from scoring a pivotal touchdown when a hit by San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman forced a fumble by halfback Chris Brown that teammate Shaun Phillips recovered.
At halftime, Turner told his players, "We've taken their best shot."
Said center Nick Hardwick: "Six-zero? Hell, that’s nothing. If you can't score seven points, you can't win a football game anyway. We knew we were fine."
In the end, though Rivers and receivers Chris Chambers (six catches, 121 yards) and Vincent Jackson (five catches, 114 yards, one TD) put up the big numbers, it was the Chargers' best player who provided the finest moment of all. With 9:47 remaining and San Diego holding a 10-6 lead, Tomlinson (21 carries, 42 yards) took over, catching a short pass from Rivers on third-and-goal from the 10-yard line and slicing to within half a yard of the end zone.
At Tomlinson's urging, Turner went for it on fourth down, and LT's leap was stopped cold by Titans linebacker Stephen Tulloch. Tomlinson, however, stayed with the play, reaching the ball over the goal line just before it was slapped away by linebacker Colin Allred.
"I was going over – period," said Tomlinson, who won his first playoff game in three attempts. "We had to have that. It's been awhile since we've won a playoff game. I don't know what it means for the franchise, but for this team, it gives us confidence knowing that we can get it done on this level now."
Now the Chargers face a powerful Indianapolis team they defeated 23-21 Nov. 11 on a rainy night at Qualcomm. That strange game included a pair of special teams touchdown returns by San Diego's Darren Sproles, a career-high six interceptions by Indy quarterback Peyton Manning and a blown 29-yard field goal attempt by the Colts' Adam Vinatieri with 1:31 remaining which kept them from completing a 23-point comeback.
Tomlinson expects a much different game this time around, but after a rough season in which even he questioned the coaching staff's approach before buying in, he's thrilled the Chargers will have the opportunity to experience a rematch.
"It's going to be crazy out there," he said. "All season the talk has been about the Patriots, but these guys were the champs. You know they're going to be ready to play, because they're defending their championship."
Beating them sounds like a daunting task, but as the Chargers demonstrated Sunday, they're very capable of responding to stiff challenges.