SAN DIEGO – They snuck into the playoffs by the grace of the football gods, needing an amazing onside kick recovery to stay alive and a season-ending four-game winning streak just to reach .500.
Then, for the second consecutive postseason, the San Diego Chargers were forced to battle a favored opponent with their superstar halfback, LaDainian Tomlinson, hobbled and destined to spend the game's pivotal stages on the sideline.
Yet somehow, some way, the Chargers persevere. Thanks to some unlikely heroes, including a braces-wearing punter and a 5-foot-6 scatback, they're still battling for a championship. That's a notion that a month ago even most of the people in their own locker room felt would be as likely as the team bus getting struck by lightning, yet San Diego keeps rolling on, to the chagrin of NFL MVP Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts for the second consecutive January.
Spurred by Tomlinson's mighty-mite replacement, Darren Sproles, whose 22-yard touchdown scamper in overtime completed an incredible evening's worth of work, San Diego scored a 23-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts at Qualcomm Stadium on Saturday that propelled it into the divisional round.
Depending upon what happens in Sunday's other AFC first-round game between the Dolphins and Ravens, the Chargers (9-8) will play at Tennessee (if Miami wins) or Pittsburgh (if Baltimore wins) next weekend. It's not clear whether Tomlinson, who a source confirmed has a torn groin muscle, will be able to go in that game – he ran just five times for 25 yards and a touchdown Saturday, all in the game's first 20 minutes – but San Diego clearly can't be counted out in his absence.
"That's what it's all about," Tomlinson said Saturday night in the Qualcomm parking lot, a couple of minutes after accepting a congratulatory hug from Manning. "You pull together in trying times, and guys pick up the slack. You saw it out here tonight, and it was tremendous.
"For us, that's the definition of team."
For the Colts (12-5), winners of nine consecutive games heading into Saturday's clash, the Chargers are the definition of heartbreak. Last year in a divisional-round game at Indy, after Tomlinson and quarterback Philip Rivers left with knee injuries, San Diego fought back to pull off an upset. In the next weekend's AFC championship game against the Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., Rivers played despite a torn ACL while Tomlinson, who had a sprained MCL, was limited to a handful of first-quarter plays in a 21-12 defeat.
Tomlinson spent most of that dismal and chilly day sitting alone on a bench with a parka on his back while striking a dejected pose. On Saturday, he was bouncing around the sideline during the thrilling fourth quarter and overtime, cheering along with 68,082 fired-up fans.
Though Manning (25 of 42, 310 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) had his moments, including a 72-yard scoring pass to wideout Reggie Wayne on which the crafty quarterback used a quick snap to catch cornerback Antonio Cromartie and other Chargers defenders in a haze of cluelessness, the Chargers refused to let the game get away. Their star for much of the night was punter Mike Scifres, who put all six of his punts inside the Indy 20-yard line while averaging a 51.7-yard net (an NFL postseason record).
It was, quite simply, one of the greatest performances by a punter in football history.
"I thought Scifres was the MVP today," said Colts coach Tony Dungy, who will spend the next few days pondering whether to retire or return for an eighth season in Indy.
As for Manning, who on Friday tied Brett Favre's record by winning his third league MVP award, he was, as Dungy said, "one first down away from clinching the game."
But the Chargers, who had missed out on a pair of enormous opportunities on consecutive second-half possessions – turning it over twice in the end zone on a Sproles fumble and a Rivers pass that was picked off by Antoine Bethea – refused to let that happen.
It began with Scifres, who uncorked a 52-yard punt that went out of bounds at the Indy 1 with 2:41 remaining. The Colts, leading 17-14, gained 8 yards on a pair of Joseph Addai runs to set up a third-and-2, and the Chargers burned their final two timeouts.
Manning dropped back to pass and was sacked at the 1 by blitzing inside linebacker Tim Dobbins, setting up a 63-yard Hunter Smith punt that Sproles returned 26 yards to the Indianapolis 38. Sproles (22 carries, 105 yards; five receptions, 45 yards), who also returned kickoffs, would finish with 328 all-purpose yards, the third-highest effort in NFL postseason history.
Rivers twice hooked up with another injured star, tight end Antonio Gates (eight catches, 87 yards), who shook off a high ankle sprain to set up Nate Kaeding's 26-yard field goal with 33 seconds remaining.
When San Diego won the toss in overtime, Rivers (20-of-36, 217 yards) felt completely confident that his team would find a way to prevail.
Thanks to some huge plays, including a short pass to Sproles on third-and-11 that the halfback turned into a 13-yard gain, and three ruinous defensive penalties on the Colts, San Diego got in field-goal range. But instead of putting it on Kaeding, coach Norv Turner called the second-and-12 running play that Sproles, after darting to his left, carried into the end zone for one of the sweetest touchdowns in franchise history.
"We've had so many close games this year, and a lot of times we weren't able to pull them out," Rivers said. "But I think those experiences helped us, and we were able to draw on them tonight. Not everything went our way, but we kept fighting, together, and we found a way to overcome adversity. I couldn't be prouder of this team."
It's a team that, against all odds, isn't done competing – even without its franchise runner. After getting burned by LT's backups and other lesser-known players for the second consecutive postseason, the Colts don't want to hear it.