Editor's note: Michael Silver's Live Trippin' will return Wednesday, Dec. 31 .
SAN DIEGO – The finality of his team's historic collapse was still sinking in, and Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler looked shellshocked as he trudged off the Qualcomm Stadium grass Sunday night and into an offseason of self-flagellation and regret.
The San Diego Chargers had just won the AFC West title in resounding fashion, defeating the Broncos, 52-21, to earn the right to host the Indianapolis Colts in a first-round playoff game six days later, and Cutler stopped to answer an unambiguous question: Was it fair to conclude that the team he just played is for real?
"These guys?" the Pro Bowl quarterback asked, gesturing to the players celebrating behind him. "San Diego? No, I don't think so. I think Indy'll handle 'em pretty good. We really can't stop anybody, and that's the bottom line."
If you are a Chargers coach, player or fan awash in the glory of a drama-tinged escape from elimination and a 4-0 December that featured San Diego's best football of the season, you're undoubtedly grimacing into your computer screen. To you, Cutler sounds bitter, jealous and spiteful, and you can't wait for him to eat his words come Saturday, when the Chargers stun the Colts in the postseason for the second consecutive January.
Your emotions may be justified, but there's something else you might want to consider: As impressive as San Diego (8-8) was in Sunday's vanquishing of its divisional rival, it's quite possible that Cutler speaks the truth.
On a day in which four teams (the Dolphins, Ravens, Vikings and Eagles) joined the Chargers in earning playoff berths, five others with better records than San Diego – including the 11-5 Patriots – fell short of the postseason. (The Broncos and three other 8-8 teams also missed the cut.)
There are reasons for this numerical imbalance that have to do with four-team divisions and tiebreaking procedures and Denver's utter defensive ineptitude down the stretch, but New England backers don't want to hear them. And they're hardly the only ones who suspect the AFC West champions aren't among the NFL's 12 best teams.
Call it pro football's answer to a BCS controversy, minus the smug college presidents and whiny coaches.
It's not just the Chargers' unseemly record, which makes them the NFL's first .500 division winner since the 1985 Cleveland Browns, that sounds alarms. Consider that San Diego went 0-5 against the '08 postseason field, losing to the Panthers, Dolphins, Steelers, Colts and Falcons. By contrast the Colts went 5-1, including a 23-0 victory Sunday over the top-seeded Titans in a meaningless game.
Indy defeated San Diego, 23-20, at Qualcomm five weeks ago, and the Colts opened as slight favorites to do it again Saturday. A defeat would leave the Chargers, who finished 3-7 against teams outside their division, with a losing overall record – and unable to rebut the critics who dismiss them as frauds.
"I see what people are saying, but the thing is, we're not 8-8 anymore," San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers declared in the locker room. "We're 0-0 now. Same as everybody else."
That's a constructive way of looking at things, and the Chargers, a trendy preseason Super Bowl pick, remain confident that they can crank it up against the NFL's elite when it counts most. As if to bolster the case, San Diego's offense was scarily efficient on Sunday, with Rivers (15 of 20, 207 yards, two touchdowns) securing the NFL's passing title and halfback LaDainian Tomlinson (14 carries, 96 yards, three TDs) looking like a star for the first time in a long time.
Given that both men limped through last year's playoffs with knee injuries, yet the Chargers still managed to shock the Colts and reach the AFC championship game, the postgame optimism expressed by Rivers and his teammates was understandable.
"We match up well against the Colts," said wideout Chris Chambers, echoing a popular refrain, "and we know what type of game it's going to be. It's nice that we're going to be at home, so that's a plus. We've got a few things going for us."
OK, now for the reality check. One thing the Chargers don't have going for them: a pass rush that seems capable of slowing down Peyton Manning, who during Indy's regular-season-closing nine-game winning streak has been the league's best quarterback (and will likely join Brett Favre as the NFL's sole three-time MVPs this week).
With star outside linebacker Shawne Merriman shelved since the season opener with a serious knee injury and bookend pass rusher Shaun Phillips showing that "The Other Guy" is an appropriate nickname, San Diego hasn't generated much pressure on opposing quarterbacks when it counts. Though the Chargers intercepted Cutler (33 of 49, 316 yards) twice on Sunday, they failed to sack him. That wasn't the team's only defensive issue, either. On a pair of long touchdown runs by the Broncos' Tatum Bell, safeties Eric Weddle and Paul Oliver were wrong-legged and left grasping for more air than Shaun White on the half-pipe.
Asked about his team's "complete performance," San Diego inside linebacker Stephen Cooper shot down the premise, saying, "I don't think it was a complete performance at all. We didn't get enough pressure on the quarterback and we got lucky with a lot of drops by their receivers. If we don't do a lot better next week, Peyton Manning and his receivers will carve us up."
For the Chargers to avoid that fate, they'll have to upgrade their performance to a level they have yet to reach in '08. Looking back at their season, they played some good teams relatively tough, but what was their signature win?
Was it Sunday's victory over a Broncos team that gave up 112 points in its last three games (and became the first team since division play began in 1967 to blow a three-game lead with three to play)?
How about the previous Sunday's 41-24 triumph over Tampa Bay, a victory that was devalued by the Bucs' 31-24 loss to the Raiders Sunday that cost them a playoff berth?
Perhaps the 48-29 victory over the Jets in Week 3?
Realistically, San Diego's most impressive result was a 30-10 thrashing of the Patriots on Oct. 12 at Qualcomm. If nothing else, Rivers believes, that outcome should render all the "we got screwed" protestations out of New England moot.
"The fact is we beat them convincingly," he said. "And it's a good thing we did, because otherwise they'd really have a right to complain. I mean, 11-5? They should be in. But tonight we proved we were deserving in the West, however it came down."
History will show that the division title came down to the thinnest of margins. On Dec. 14, San Diego rallied from a 21-3 deficit to the Chiefs in Kansas City to close to within five points with 1:19 remaining. Punter Mike Scifres hit a high onside kick that was headed straight into the hands of Chiefs wideout Dwayne Bowe, a recovery that would've ended the Chargers' season.
The ball hung up for a long time as Bowe prepared to make the grab while San Diego's Antwan Applewhite closed in looking for a desperation hit.
"That [expletive] was in slow motion," Scifres recalled. "Bowe had it, but then he bobbled it, and Applewhite hit him, and the ball was loose."
Then several players hit the Arrowhead Stadium turf, where the Chargers' ace special teamer, Kassim Osgood, made the recovery that kept hope alive.
"The whole thing took forever," Osgood recalled. "I got that ball, though. And we won. And here we are."
As he spoke late Sunday night Osgood was standing in a crowded Pacific Beach club, with music pumping and teammates coalescing and happy Chargers fans giving him love.
Cutler and the Broncos, meanwhile, were crowding into a 757 at San Diego's Lindbergh Airport after their charter flight was canceled due to a hydraulic leak.
It was that kind of night for the visitors, who'll forever regard their 8-8 season as a colossal failure.
The Chargers? They're 0-0 and convinced they're about to soar.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Chad Pennington had just landed in Ft. Lauderdale, the whoops of his elated teammates audible over the phone – but the veteran quarterback was still sky-high. "It feels good, man," he said. "Right now it's just surreal. I'm kind of numb to it all. But man, I'm loving this." How could he not be? Miami, a 1-15 team the previous season, had just won the AFC East thanks largely to the efforts of Pennington, who the AFC East-rival Jets discarded after trading for Favre back in August. The fact that Pennington led the Dolphins to a 24-17 victory over Favre and the Jets at Giants Stadium Sunday made one of the NFL's most improbable success stories of recent years all the more remarkable. Pennington, true to his meticulous nature, saw it coming more than a month ago. "I realized back at the end of November that if we won out, we were probably going to have to go right through New York to get the division," he said. "There was no sense in trying to avoid it. That's how it had to be. And it's so great to win. People don't realize how sweet it is to win in this league, and how hard it is – there's so much work that goes into it from Monday through Saturday to get that result on Sunday." After I watched the Dolphins beat the Bills in Toronto a few weeks ago, it wasn't hard to get Pennington's teammates to talk about his impact on the formerly flailing franchise. What they saw on Sunday was a true pro who put aside his personal emotion and led his team to a title that – let's face it – none of us outside Miami's locker room saw coming.
• As he mentally prepared for the 50-yard field goal that, to the best of his knowledge, would decide whether the Vikings made it to the postseason, veteran kicker Ryan Longwell expected the obligatory delay. Trailing the New York Giants by two points with nine seconds to go at the Metrodome, Minnesota coach Brad Childress called timeout, and Giants coach Tom Coughlin followed with a timeout of his own. Childress then stunned his players by sending the offense back onto the field, but the attempt to pick up some extra yards for Longwell was foiled when quarterback Tarvaris Jackson misconnected with Bobby Wade on a sideline pass. At that point, Coughlin called yet another timeout, making Longwell feel like the loneliest man in the world. "I got a few more gray hairs for sure," Longwell said later from his home near the Twin Cities. "It was especially tough being iced twice by the other team – and once by my own team. I'm not sure how that all played out, but hey, no complaints." That's because Longwell nailed the kick on the final play to give Minnesota a 20-19 victory and the NFC North title. Though it turned out that the Bears were in the process of losing to the Texans, 31-24, which would have allowed Minnesota to back into the playoffs as division champs, as far as Longwell knew his foot controlled the Vikings' fate. Even for a 12th-year veteran with a history of clutch kicks for the Packers and Vikes, that was a heavy concept. "I guess some of the guys on our sidelines found out [that the Bears were losing], but no one told me," Longwell said. "I understood the ramifications of that kick. Guys who tell you they don't think about what happens if they miss, they're lying to you. I knew the downside. The punter [Chris Kluwe] and I always joke that we're kicking for our jobs every single week – not just in a game like this, but even in the preseason. Only it's not really a joke."
• Of all the teams the third-seeded Vikings figured to host in Sunday's first-round playoff game, the Philadelphia Eagles seemed the least-likely opponent. After last weekend's dispiriting defeat to the Redskins, Philly needed the Bears to lose to the Texans and the Raiders to stun the Bucs to put them in position to make the playoffs with a victory over the Cowboys. That, too, was far from a sure thing – until, you know, they actually started playing. The Eagles, the team that survived a quarterback benching, a tie with the lowly Bengals and lots of fretting over coach Andy Reid's future, destroyed the team that was the darling of the preseason Super Bowl prediction circuit by a 44-6 score. With five forced turnovers and another strong performance by revived quarterback Donovan McNabb, Philly looked dominant. I don't know whether the Eagles can keep it up – they've been wildly inconsistent – but you have to admit, it's great theater.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• After jumping back and forth all season about the state of the Cowboys – Are they unbeatable? Are they finished? Are they revived? – America finally has its answer. Big D was a huge disappointment, a tease, a failure. I give owner Jerry Jones a lot of credit for trying to stockpile as much talent as he could and for steadfastly supporting his embattled coach, Wade Phillips, but this team underachieved in '08 and will be under even more pressure to right things in '09. Watching Jones' two highest-profile acquisitions of '08 in Philly on Sunday told you everything you needed to know. There was Adam "Pacman" Jones getting a stupid late-hit penalty, helping to set up the touchdown that put the Eagles up 24-3 with 15 seconds left in the first half. Then, amazingly, Jones fumbled the ensuing kickoff, allowing David Akers to nail a 50-yard field goal to put Dallas into a 24-point halftime hole. As for wideout Roy Williams, who last week expressed dissatisfaction with his lack of involvement in the offense, here was his contribution: two catches, four yards. I'm going to go out on a limb and say there's a chemistry issue on this team.
• Heading into December, the Bucs were 9-3 and well-positioned for a second consecutive NFC South title. Now? They're out of the playoffs, out a defensive coordinator and looking completely spent. Other than that, it's all good. Seriously, has a team ever gotten so old, so fast? When rumors surfaced in late November (later confirmed) that longtime defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin would join his son, Lane, at the University of Tennessee after the season, it was as if the whole defense checked out along with him. Given the history between Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden and Raiders owner Al Davis – and Lane Kiffin and Davis, for that matter – Sunday's 31-24 home defeat to Oakland was as bad as it gets for the Bucs. Actually, it gets worse: Gritty halfback Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, one of the team's few young standouts, tore the patellar tendon in his right knee last season, an injury viewed as potentially career-ending. Williams' valiant comeback seemed complete Sunday as he scored a pair of touchdowns and had 115 combined rushing and receiving yards, including 28 on a run in the fourth quarter. Yet Williams, tackled by the Raiders' Chris Johnson, appeared to have torn the patellar tendon in his left knee on the play. If so, it would be utterly devastating. A lot can happen over an offseason, but right now it's hard to imagine the Bucs winning five games in '09.
• Contrary to a report on nbcsports.com, which suggests that Tom Brady's knee injury is healing so slowly that he might have to sit out the 2009 season, my sources tell me that the Patriots quarterback is rehabbing daily at the team's facility and expects to be ready for next year's opener. In the meantime, the Pats are smart enough not to let Matt Cassel, due to become a free agent after the season, get away until they're sure that Brady can return. Does that mean the Pats would be willing to franchise Cassel, potentially putting them on the hook for roughly $12 million in '09 salary (and tying up a reported $26 million of the salary cap for the team's top two QBs)? As a certain former vice presidential candidate would say … You betcha. Yes, New England could make it work cap-wise, and no, the Pats wouldn't let Cassel go for free even if they knew Brady was healthy. At the very least, franchising Cassel would allow them to get some compensation via a trade. Another question for the Pats: If a trade is made, who'll be executing it? Sources say longtime vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli may finally be ready to end his successful partnership with coach Bill Belichick and listen to offers from Cleveland (which fired general manager Phil Savage on Sunday), Kansas City or other teams looking for a new front-office chief. Watching a guy who worked under him in New England, Thomas Dimitroff, enjoy enormous success as the Falcons' first-year GM undoubtedly is influencing Pioli's willingness to consider running his own show somewhere else. Under such a scenario Belichick, presumably, would hand-pick Pioli's successor in New England. One man you can be sure he won't be selecting: Pioli's shameless father-in-law, Miami executive vice president of operations Bill Parcells, who according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen may be ready to execute an out clause relating to a Dolphins ownership change, pocket $12 million for a year's worth of work and jump to another franchise. The report surfaced on the day the Dolphins were getting ready to play their biggest game in years. Stay classy, Tuna. Finally, a word on Belichick: After losing Brady in the season opener and numerous key players thereafter, he finagled an 11-5 record and near-playoff appearance out of a team that set an NFL record for fewest penalties (57) in a 16-game season. Think the man can coach a little?
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How I could hit my head three times – three times! – on the low-hanging TV set above my seat at the LP Field press box before and during last Sunday's Titans-Steelers game. The collision at the start of the national anthem was especially loud and grisly, and I like to think the temporary disorientation it caused was at least partly responsible for the third crash. I'm sure many of you will be tempted to note that the next morning's column read like the obvious product of someone who had been concussed, and I'll take that punishment, because anyone who makes the same mistake three times in a two-hour period deserves whatever grief is thrown his way. Just call me sports journalism's most heedless headbanger. And let's stay on this theme as we ponder …
2. Why Steelers coach Mike Tomlin played his most important players more than a series or two in an utterly meaningless game. Tomlin has done a tremendous coaching job in his first two seasons in Pittsburgh, but I believe he'll look back later in his career on games such as Sunday's and realize he was needlessly exposing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and other key starters to injury in an effort to manufacture momentum. Late in the first half of the Steelers' 31-0 victory over the Browns, Roethlisberger got hit during a pass attempt by the Browns' Willie McGinest and D'Qwell Jackson and his helmet bounced off the Heinz Field grass. That decreased dramatically the odds that the quarterback would stay sharp for second-seeded Pittsburgh's playoff opener in two weeks. Roethlisberger lay on the field for 15 minutes and was immobilized, carted off and taken to the hospital with what was later diagnosed as a concussion. Hopefully disaster was averted and Big Ben will be OK for the playoffs. If not, Tomlin's head will be pounding for the next six months.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
I'm not mad at Favre for ending his brief retirement and coming back to play an 18th season in 2008, because he'd certainly earned the right to try to extend his career, and his ultracompetitive nature is one of the traits that propelled him to the top of his profession. And I'm not upset at the Packers for deciding to trade him to the Jets and commit to Aaron Rodgers as their quarterback of the present and future, because sometimes organizations have to put aside sentiment and make very tough calls. But after watching Favre struggle down the stretch, and especially in Sunday's game against the Dolphins, I selfishly wish he would've resisted the urge to return. The Jets lost four of their final five games to doom their postseason chances, and Favre, 39, was brutal during that span, throwing two touchdowns and nine interceptions. He was picked three times on Sunday, including a killer of a misfire to halfback Thomas Jones that the Dolphins' Phillip Merling returned 25 yards for a touchdown with 2:03 left in the first half. His final interception was even more perplexing. With the Jets down a touchdown and having driven to the Dolphins' 29 with five minutes remaining in the game, Favre threw a ball that was allegedly intended for wideout Chansi Stuckey – right into the arms of defensive back Andre Goodman. When the Jets got the ball back only 17 seconds remained, and then the frustrated quarterback was throwing a short pass and taking a lateral from teammate Leon Washington and getting slammed ingloriously to the turf. It was an ugly scene. Favre is scheduled to have an MRI on his sore right shoulder Monday, and the results of that may or may not serve as at least a partial explanation for his late-season struggles. I don't know whether he'll choose to come back for another season in New York, and I don't know if the Jets will want him back (and, with Eric Mangini fired Monday, who the head coach will be that helps make that decision). I just know that in a season in which the Lions, who lost to the Packers at Lambeau Field Sunday to finish 0-16, completed the worst regular season in NFL history, watching Favre against the Dolphins ranked as the saddest sight of all.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"I made sure to get 10 pts… Older I get, the easier it gets."
– Email Sunday morning from Cardinals halfback and Miami alum Edgerrin James, who despite the 'Canes' 24-17 defeat to Cal in the Emerald Bowl managed to win a friendly wager from teammate J.J. Arrington.
– Email Sunday morning from Olympic swimming great Natalie Coughlin, upon being reminded that thanks to Cal's victory her services (as per my bet with Luke Campbell) would not be required.