DATE CREATED: 1/4/09
Beating revived San Diego no sure thing for Pittsburgh
Alan Abrahamson, NBCSports.com
SAN DIEGO -
There's a back entrance into Qualcomm Stadium, a locals-only way that goes by a municipal airport and then down a side road. On football game days, the way is always marked by a fan on the side of the road, a guy I've come to think of as San Diego Super Charger Very Busy Flag Guy.
Very Busy Flag Guy stands there and waves an assortment of oversized San Diego Super Charger flags at the traffic going by. That's his thing.
His thing Saturday featured something new, an enhancement added for the wild-card playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts. Here was a sign hung on the back of a red Jeep that proclaimed: "Philip, it's your destiny."
Maybe it is, truly, destiny. How else to explain the Chargers' 23-17 overtime victory over Indianapolis?
San Diego overcame two turnovers, played for most of the game without star running back LaDainian Tomlinson, stayed close because of quarterback Philip Rivers' steady hand and the incredible punting of Mike Scifres, the game finally turning on a late fourth-quarter Chargers defensive stand and then a 22-yard touchdown scamper in overtime from Tomlinson's backup, Darren Sproles.
The Chargers, now winners of five in a row, back from the seemingly dead at 4-8, head next week to Pittsburgh, and if you're the Steelers, answer truthfully: Do you really want to get the Chargers on this kind of roll?
"They won in December and they're hot right now," Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy said, adding a moment later, "No one is going to want to play them."
Sproles, who stands all of 5-foot-6, weighs all of 181 pounds, finished with 105 yards rushing and 328 all-purpose yards - third-most in NFL playoff history. "I always knew that I could do it," he said.
Scifres punted six times, all inside the 20. He averaged 52.7 yards per kick, 51.7 net, the longest 67, the most important his final punt of the night, which rolled out of bounds and pinned Indianapolis at the 1 with 2:41 to go. "You never know which way the ball is going to bounce and luckily it bounced our way tonight," he said, squinting into the television cameras. And then he laughed out loud at the idea of a punter being asked for insight.
Qualcomm erupted when Sproles scored, rockets going off, the noise deafening, Chargers players throwing their helmets into the air from the sidelines, linebacker Matt Wilhelm's ending up all the way down by the end zone.
"As good a win as I've ever had," San Diego coach Norv Turner said.
"It's unbelievable," said Rivers.
"I'm just enjoying the ride," Tomlinson said, acknowledging that he is "worried about my health," troubled by a groin issue he declined to discuss in detail. Asked if he had been told to have surgery, he said, "I can't answer that right now."
Nonetheless, he also said with emphasis, "It's just sweet to win and go on."
The Colts had for most seemed destiny's choice, winners of nine in a row, one of the nine a 23-21 victory here in November.
Instead, the favored team lost Saturday by the same score as the Baltimore Colts did 50 years ago in the first overtime game in league history to the New York Giants for the NFL title (aka The Greatest Game Ever Played).
Peyton Manning, the league MVP, completed 25 or 42 passes for 310 yards, including a 72-yard touchdown to Reggie Wayne that came when the Chargers were caught mid-substitution - cornerback Antonio Cromartie literally watching Wayne run right by him at the line.
Moreover, San Diego made yet other mistakes, and in the playoffs mistakes typically prove mortal.
Sproles fumbled in the third quarter near the Indianapolis 2. Rivers threw an early fourth-quarter pick into the Indy end zone. Safety Eric Weddle coulda, shoulda had an interception near halftime.
Even so, when Scifres pinned the Colts back at the 1, 2:41 on the clock, Indianapolis ahead 17-14, needing only a first down to put the game away, the Chargers apparently had the Colts right where they wanted them.
First down: Joseph Addai runs for six. Charger time out.
Second down: Addai to the left for two. Charger time out, San Diego's last time out.
Third: Manning sacked by linebacker Tim Dobbins. Manning never saw Dobbins coming from the backside; Manning was lucky to hold onto the ball.
Sproles returned the punt to the Indianapolis 38, Rivers connected twice over the middle with tight end Antonio Gates, Sproles ran up the gut for eight and, with 33 seconds left, kicker Nate Kaeding tied the game.
The Chargers won the toss and, for a team that had to scrap to get to 8-8 in part because of referee Ed Hochuli's bad call in Denver early in the year, moved downfield in part because of three Indy penalties. Payback, destiny, something.
From the Indianapolis 22, the Chargers called "30 iso," the ball going to Sproles on a running play to the left. "I saw the end slant in," Sproles said. "Once I saw the end slant in, I saw the green grass outside and I just went for the score."
Looking ahead, the Steelers should note this: While Sproles is more than capable and a healthy Tomlinson a force with which to be reckoned, the Chargers offensive has, with remarkably few noticing, undergone a significant transition. Two years ago, LT rushed for 28 touchdowns. This season, Rivers threw for 34.
Rivers didn't throw any scores Saturday but did spread the ball around to six receivers and, but for the one interception, showed veteran poise, throwing the ball away when he had to instead of forcing bad throws. "This thing comes down to competing and wanting to be at your best and play at your best and that's what Philip did," Turner said.
Meanwhile, since making a mid-season defensive change, Ron Rivera taking over as defensive coordinator in place of Ted Cottrell, the Chargers have stepped it up in defensive intensity - all the while without star linebacker Shawne Merriman, out with a knee injury.
The Chargers believe.
You can tell by the answer Tomlinson gave when asked about Sproles. LT offered the sort of words that don't get spoken regularly by a professional athlete, an answer that makes you wonder what is going on all the way out there in San Diego. If it's not destiny, then what?
He said, "There is a brotherhood and a love for the guy that you see come into this league and you've grown a relationship with.
"When he's running, it's like I'm running and that's kind of how I feel. It's never a doubt what Darren can do."
LT also said, "Nobody gave us much of a chance this game but the guys in this locker room believed. When you believe, you can get a lot of things accomplished. And I think we're going to continue to believe."
© 2009 NBC Sports.com
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