INDIANAPOLIS – When the moment carried the most weight, a certain emotional commodity always eluded these San Diego Chargers.
You saw it in 2004, when they painfully imploded in a 20-17 wild-card loss to the New York Jets. It was a defined hollowness which once again revealed itself in last season's playoffs, when a celebrated juggernaut tumbled into infamy with a 24-21 loss to the New England Patriots. And right up until Sunday, the Chargers seemed destined to carry one damning reputation: Here lies a team long on talent, short on poise, and destined to disappoint.
As Chargers coach Norv Turner put it after San Diego's stunning 28-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts, we finally can put all that to rest.
"There's a mindset in our league that our guys kind of play good in front – they're front-runners – and (that) when it gets tough, or when they play good teams, or things get really challenging, that they don't rise to the occasion," Turner said. "I think we've put that thing to rest. I think that one is done forever."
So it may be for the Chargers, who went into Indianapolis and flipped roles, sending the defending Super Bowl champs home, and scuttling the library of intriguing story lines a Colts-Patriots AFC championship would have provided. And they did it with no apologies, besting Peyton Manning and the Colts offense with a fourth quarter fueled by backup quarterback Billy Volek, backup running back Michael Turner and Norv – a man considered by some to be a recycled ragamuffin as a head coach.
What it meant for this franchise was palpable Sunday night. San Diego showed it could weather a game of tremendous momentum shifts in a hostile environment while facing one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The Chargers prevailed through seven lead changes, some questionable penalties and an interception for a touchdown that appeared to be called back erroneously. This from a team that repeatedly sabotaged itself in past playoff games with poor play calling, mistakes and a conservative nature that ultimately led to replacing coach Marty Schottenheimer with Turner this past offseason.
It was a coaching change met with wildly unpopular reviews, particularly after the Chargers struggled early this season to find an offensive rhythm. But redemption came in an avalanche Sunday night. Some for Turner, who reaches his first title game as a head coach, and some for blustery general manager A.J. Smith, who has increased his gloating factor tenfold.
Smith's choice to replace Schottenheimer now twice has done what his predecessor couldn't do: win a playoff game. His choice for defensive coordinator, Ted Cottrell, did a masterful job when it meant the most, stifling the Colts' offense on its final two drives – both potential game-winners. Smith's other fingerprints? The backup running back he held onto despite trade interest picked up the second-half load from an injured LaDainian Tomlinson. The star quarterback he drafted, Philip Rivers, played arguably the best game of his career. And the backup quarterback Smith traded for, Volek, finished the game when Rivers couldn't.
"If we didn't have Mike Turner today, we would have been in trouble – and Darren Sproles as well," Chargers safety Marlon McCree said. "Ted and Norv, they called their butts off. Speaking from a defensive standpoint, Ted made some calls that put us in some positions where Peyton didn't know what we were in. And he's the best quarterback in the league."
In many ways, the Chargers appear to be finding their groove on both sides of the ball, from last week's impressive 17-6 defensive win over Tennessee to this week's more potent offensive affair against the Colts. The defense, while having trouble stopping the Colts at times Sunday, continued to force critical mistakes. Two interceptions and a Marvin Harrison fumble killed three potential scoring drives, and Manning never looked comfortable late in the fourth quarter.
But the underlying theme that continues to push the Chargers has been the strong quarterback play of Rivers, who has provided almost all of the scoring punch in San Diego's two playoff wins. For the most part, Rivers has played his way through the gremlins of inconsistency that plagued him through the first half of the season.
His rise has been aided by San Diego's offensive line, which gave up five sacks to the Tennessee Titans on Dec. 9 but has surrendered only four in the five games since. In turn, Rivers has put together a steady five-game run, notching eight touchdowns and two interceptions in that span, and posting four 100-plus passer ratings in those games (the fifth being a 92.6 rating in last week's rematch against the Titans). All the while, he's shown the same poise that has come to define the Chargers down the stretch.
"I kind of all along hoped that what we went through all year – some of the ups and downs and the criticism and the poor play by a lot of us – that maybe it would pay off," Rivers said. "I think it has to this point. It has given us an ability to handle these situations."
Now the Chargers will face their ultimate test: finding a way to derail New England's dream season – much the same way the Patriots destroyed San Diego's fairytale only a year ago. Last year's loss, which San Diego had in hand until McCree fumbled an interception which allowed New England's game-winning field goal, still reverberates in the mind of many Chargers players. For McCree, it's a play he says "still haunts" him. But within the pain is one more chance at redemption.
"I'm looking forward to watching that tape again," Chargers cornerback Drayton Florence said. "We did some good things in that game, too. I think we have to look at this like an opportunity because that's what it is. It's an opportunity to go back in there and set things right for us."