INDIANAPOLIS - After handing New England a huge gift, the San Diego Chargers believe it’s time to give the unbeaten Patriots something else: a challenge.
And, oh yeah, a loss.
By stunning Peyton Manning and the defending champion Colts 28-24 on Sunday, undermanned San Diego removed New England’s biggest road block to the Super Bowl. Not that the Chargers are intimidated by facing the 17-0 Patriots in the AFC title game next weekend.
Despite having LaDainaian Tomlinson and Philip Rivers on the sideline, the Chargers won their eighth straight game. Of course, that’s not even half of what New England has achieved.
“Seventeen have tried and it hasn’t happened,” quarterback Philip Rivers said of New England’s perfect record. “We think it can happen.”
But San Diego must avoid a repeat of its last performance at New England, when it was routed 38-14 in Week 2. That was the beginning of a slide to 5-5 for San Diego, but the Chargers (13-5) are rolling now.
“A lot has happened since then,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We’ll definitely start all over on the preparations. It’s like it’s a new team.”
Also an undermanned team. L.T. departed in the first half with a bruised left knee, and Rivers went out in the third quarter with a damaged right knee. Both said they hoped to be ready for the Patriots, and coach Norv Turner said they are “questionable.”
“That’s the true measure of a team,” Tomlinson said. “Guys stepped up and got it done.”
Those guys included Billy Volek at quarterback and Michael Turner as the main runner. Led by those subs, San Diego went 78 yards on eight plays, with Volek sneaking in from the 1 with 4:50 remaining for the lead. The Chargers’ big-play defense then held on downs at its 7, and stopped Indy again in the final moments to preserve their eighth straight win.
To make it nine in a row and advance to their second Super Bowl — the other was a loss to San Francisco after the 1994 season — the Chargers will need all that resourcefulness again.
“I’m pretty sure we’ll be huge underdogs, but it’s still going to be fun, just to get the opportunity,” Tomlinson said. “All the rest of the teams have had their opportunity to play New England, and we’ll get another opportunity to do so in the AFC championship game. What a better way to go back there.”
For the Colts (13-4), it was a bitterly quick elimination from the postseason.
A year ago, they won three playoff games, then beat Chicago in the Super Bowl. They couldn’t recapture their touch on offense or defense this time.
“What happened last year doesn’t make it any easier this year,” Manning said. “When you come back and commit yourself to the ’07 season and you don’t finish it like you want to, it hurts.”
A defense that allowed the fewest points during the season wore down against the equally physical Chargers. Still, the Colts went in front 24-21 when Anthony Gonzalez slipped past Marlon McCree down the left sideline to complete a 55-yard scoring play with 10:07 to go. The Chargers challenged that Gonzalez stepped out of bounds at about the 25, but the play stood.
So San Diego’s backups then won it, helped by a 27-yard screen pass to rookie Legedu Naanee and a 15-yard face-mask penalty against Indianapolis cornerback Marlin Jackson.
Manning did throw for 402 yards, completing 33 of his 48 throws, but both interceptions killed deep scoring threats.
With All-Pro cornerback Antonio Cromartie getting an interception and fumble recovery, and linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips plaguing Manning, the Chargers showed they have the ability to throw off any offense. Maybe even the most prolific attack in NFL history next Sunday.
It was a gutty showing by Rivers, who threw for three scores — he banged his right knee on a 56-yard screen pass TD by Darren Sproles to end the third quarter. And Turner, who could be a starter elsewhere but usually sits behind league rushing leader Tomlinson, rushed for 71 yards.
Still, if Tomlinson is limited or sidelined, how much chance do the Chargers have against the perfect Patriots? Not to mention perhaps missing Rivers or tight end Antonio Gates, who courageously played much of the day on a dislocated toe.
Belichick dismissed the injuries.
PFT: Defensive end finally finds a new team in San Diego — and for a honey of a deal that would be worth a max of $13.35 million.
2013 SNF Schedule
Check out the 2013 Sunday Night Football schedule.
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