In a fitting metaphor for their 2010 season, the San Diego Chargers got off to a choppy start against the Denver Broncos on Monday night, looking flat-footed and confused as the visitors drove down the field and scored an opening-drive touchdown.
Then, just as those "they're in trouble" thoughts started to run through your head, the Chargers seemingly flipped a switch, rolled off 35 unanswered points and suddenly looked capable of competing with anyone.
Actually, let's face it, Monday's 35-14 victory over the Broncos was a metaphor for every Chargers season during Norv Turner's four-year tenure as head coach. That's why I hate them. And love them. Actually, neither of those statements is true. What I really mean to say is that the Chargers drive me crazy: Every year I fall into the same trap, and every year I have to pull myself out of it and make a walk of shame back to Qualcomm Stadium for a big game in December or January.
In 2007, Turner's first year after predecessor Marty Schottenheimer was fired following a 14-2 regular season, San Diego started 1-2 – at which point I declared that the coaching switch had been a colossal failure and should be reversed immediately. Oops: Following a home defeat to the Chiefs that dropped them to 1-3, the Chargers won 10 of their final 12 – including their last six – and charged into the playoffs. Then, following a first-round victory over the Titans, the Chargers went to Indy and stunned the Colts before putting up a reasonable fight against the undefeated Patriots in the AFC championship game.
The next season I saw San Diego lose to the Falcons at Qualcomm in late November to fall to 4-8, and quarterback Philip Rivers(notes) told me afterward, "It won't be fun coming in [Monday] now that we're out of it. Mathematically, [making the playoffs] can happen, but realistically it's tough to think that it will."
So, for the record, I wasn't the only one who wrote off the '08 Chargers. However, thanks to some luck (including a fumbled Dwayne Bowe(notes) onside kick that allowed San Diego to steal a victory over the Chiefs) and a Broncos collapse, it was a premature declaration. And there I was back at Qualcomm for consecutive weeks in late December and January as the Chargers pummeled Denver to win the AFC West and took down the Colts in the playoffs before suffering a divisional-round defeat at Pittsburgh.
The pattern repeated last year as the team lost three of its first five games while the Broncos, under first-year coach Josh McDaniels, raced to a 6-0 start. Once again, I bit on the notion that the Chargers wouldn't overcome their sluggish start, let alone a 3 ½-game deficit to an obviously legitimate division foe. Eleven consecutive victories later, San Diego was 13-3 (five games better than the decidedly non-legit Broncos) and talking Super Bowl – until it suffered a divisional-round playoff upset to the Jets.
So did I learn my lesson? Evidently not, given my dismissive tone toward the Chargers after they lost to the Patriots last month to fall to 2-5. I now suspect it was all a setup: Following Monday's victory, the Chargers (5-5) are tied with the Raiders for second place in the AFC West and are only a game behind the Chiefs (6-4), with each division rival set to visit Qualcomm over the coming weeks.
After next Sunday night's visit to Indy to face the Colts, a team against whom they've enjoyed uncanny success in recent years, the Chargers host the Raiders, Chiefs and 49ers in consecutive weeks before finishing with games at Cincinnati and Denver. In other words, a fifth consecutive AFC West title looks very, very attainable.
If I've learned anything from recent history, it's that once this team gets hot, it's likely to stay hot. In Turner's four seasons, San Diego is 24-5 in regular-season games played in November or later – including 16 consecutive victories.
As much as it drives me nuts, the switch has officially been flipped, and the light bulb has finally gone on in my brain as well.
I realize that some of San Diego's great escapes wouldn't have been possible in a stronger division, and it's true that Turner's teams still haven't captured a conference title, much less a Super Bowl ring. This year, however, could be different: With Rivers playing at a scarily prolific level and the imminent return of a pair of his Pro Bowl targets, injured tight end Antonio Gates(notes) and suspended wideout Vincent Jackson(notes), the Chargers have the potential to outscore anyone in a given game. At the very least, they have a chance to build on their recent efforts, peak at the right time and head into the playoffs as a confident bunch that is used to battling through adversity.
Speaking of which, I'd like to ask a favor: Next October, when the Chargers are bumbling their way through a shoddy start and I'm on the verge of concluding that they absolutely, positively won't be able to get away with it this time, can someone kindly send me a link to this column? I'd be much obliged.
IF I SLIPPED JON GRUDEN SOME TRUTH SERUM …
Midway through the third quarter, cameras focused on suspended Chargers wideout Vincent Jackson on the sideline, causing Gruden to gush, "Well this guy's a great receiver. He's a physically imposing guy, about 6-foot-5. How'd you like to be the Indianapolis Colts knowing you've got Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson coming back? This Charger football team is still loaded."
The serum-enhanced version:
"Well, this guy's a great receiver. He's a physically imposing guy, about 6-foot-5. How'd you like to be the Indianapolis Colts, knowing … Wait a minute, what am I saying? OF COURSE you'd like to be the Indianapolis Colts, because your quarterback is Peyton Manning(notes) – The Sheriff. I don't care who Philip Rivers has to throw to, or if Peyton Manning is throwing to Reggie Wayne(notes) and a bunch of guys I've never heard of … I'll still take The Sheriff. And I can't wait to watch that game next Sunday night on NBC!
TUESDAY MORNING HAIKU
Won his first six games
Then reality set in
Josh has lost his glow
ONE E FOR FREE
I still remember your preseason comments about the Minnesota Vikings, with which I was in full agreement. Normally I don't go around suggesting people toot their own horn, but should the Vikings continue playing like cellar-dwellers and lose to the Packers on Sunday, I suggest you quote some of your earlier statements and do a little strutting of your own.
Happy Valley, Ore.
Wow. I've received a lot of suggestions over the years, but as many readers (and friends, and loved ones) can readily attest, outside encouragement to horn-toot is usually something I don't need. However, since you twisted my arm: In the wake of Monday's news out of Minnesota, how many of you enjoyed my sneak preview of Stick It To Ted 2: It's Not About The Money?