DENVER – Coach Marty Schottenheimer called them "chronicles" – the clockwork November and December meltdowns that occurred within the confines of Invesco Field. More often than not, Schottenheimer and these San Diego Chargers have been little more than a footnote bludgeoned into this stadium's history.
But there is a funny thing about most chronologies. Run your finger down a timeline long enough, and every battle turns. The Greeks and the Romans. The Mongolians and the Manchurians. Now, the Chargers and the Denver Broncos. And this wasn't just a minor momentum swing. NFL geography was altered Sunday night, and it left the league's axis tilting in a new direction.
When Sunday came and went, the Colts had toppled, the Bears had struggled and the Chargers had laid claim to being the best team in the NFL. And San Diego did it in a place and a way history suggested could only be fiction: trailing 24-7 in the third quarter on the road and against the stingiest scoring defense in the league.
"Everybody talks about statement games and all that. Well, we'll just let what we've done the last two weeks be our statement," San Diego cornerback Quentin Jammer said. "We're not going away. We've had the talent, we've had the coaches and now we've got the character, too."
Despite injuries that had the Chargers scrambling to piece together defensive packages late in the game, San Diego outscored Denver 28-3 over the last 1½ quarters Sunday. It was the second straight game the Chargers dug themselves out of quicksand against an opponent. Last week, they posted an improbable 49-41 win over Cincinnati that came after San Diego trailed 24-7 at the half.
As Schottenheimer put it: "The only time the score is of any consequence is when the game is over."
And the Chargers proved that, pounding a much-hyped Denver defense into submission the second half. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson ran at will behind left tackle Marcus McNeill, taking advantage of the few risks the Broncos took in the second half. It was a game that ultimately turned on Tomlinson's 51-yard catch and run down the middle of the field with 3:51 left in the third quarter. Denver blitzed in Cover 0 (no safety help on pass-catchers), leaving Tomlinson matched up with a defensive end. Quarterback Philip Rivers rolled right to avoid the blitz and hit Tomlinson in stride, leaving him to flit down the field untouched for the third of his four touchdowns and pulling the Chargers to within 24-21.
"The comeback at that point was over," Rivers said. "It was a ballgame again."
More accurately, it was San Diego's ballgame. The Chargers held Denver to a field goal on the ensuing possession, then moved 55 yards for the go-ahead touchdown pass from Rivers to Vincent Jackson – a five-yard lob into the corner of the end zone that was the antithesis of Schottenheimer's run-centric "Martyball" that so often has bogged down San Diego in the past.
The Chargers also added a 1-yard touchdown run by Tomlinson late in the fourth quarter. In all, the four scores made Tomlinson the fastest player in NFL history to 100 touchdowns (89 career games), beating the previous record held by Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith by four games. Tomlinson now has 22 touchdowns (102 in his career) and is well ahead of pace to surpass the single-season touchdown record of 28 set by Seattle's Shaun Alexander last season.
"The best there is," Rivers said. "There aren't many people that would argue with that, at least not anymore."
Now the rest of the league is left to debate the greatness of the Chargers. Yes, there clearly are kinks to work out. Already without linebacker Shawne Merriman and defensive end Luis Castillo, key players like safeties Clinton Hart and Marlon McCree and linebackers Carlos Polk and Shaun Phillips were nicked Sunday night. At one point, the unit became so thin that Schottenheimer's assistants had to pull some plays from availability because the Chargers didn't have the personnel to run them.
"Yeah, that did happen," Jammer said. "I can't say which ones, but I'll say this: It happened at least a handful of times."
That said, San Diego still appears to be in better shape than some of the league's other top Super Bowl contenders. All year long, Indianapolis has shown an inability to consistently stop the run or establish its own running game. Both elements were a factor in the Colts' loss to Dallas on Sunday. And even though the Bears grinded out a tough road win against the Jets, Rex Grossman and the offense aren't easing concerns that they could be a liability in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Chargers' banged-up defense is making just enough key plays to support one of the league's most prolific offenses.
"We were having trouble finding guys to put on the field on defense," Schottenheimer said. "I'm not talking figuratively, I'm talking literally. We were having trouble finding guys that would have been able to go out there and play the position with a history of practice at the position."
Yet San Diego was able to pull itself together at opportune moments, leaving the rest of the NFL to wonder what the defense will be like when Merriman and Castillo are healthy down the road. Clearly, the health of the defense is the last question to be answered now that Rivers has maintained his high level of play and earned the trust of Schottenheimer in key moments. The coach even went as far as to compare Rivers' mental demeanor on Sunday to that of Joe Montana, an interesting development when you consider that only a few months ago, he likened the quarterback to a somewhat less accomplished Bernie Kosar.
With Rivers showing he's able to grasp whatever defense is put in front of him, and with players like Jackson developing key roles, San Diego's offense looks as dangerous as any in the NFL. And with Indianapolis proving beatable, the AFC undoubtedly is up for grabs.
"We're sitting there looking at Indy like they're unbeatable," Tomlinson said. "But then we see them go down, and now it's like anything can happen. One more loss with Indy, and hey, who knows?"
After seeing San Diego pull off the unbelievable two straight weeks, we have a pretty good idea.