INDIANAPOLIS - The victorious players filed into the locker room one after another, hollering, “How about the Chargers?!”
Yes, how about the Chargers, especially ones the fans don’t usually hear a lot about?
How about Michael “The Burner” Turner taking over for injured LaDainian Tomlinson and bulling his way for 77 yards, essentially a $2.35 million insurance policy paying off?
How about speedy little Darren Sproles catching a screen pass from Philip Rivers and racing 56 yards untouched down the left sideline for a touchdown that hushed the RCA Dome?
How about Billy Volek — yes, Billy Volek — coming in after Rivers got hurt? Volek not only calmly led San Diego’s go-ahead drive, but he scored the winning touchdown as well, on a 1-yard sneak with 4:50 to play.
How about this — Chargers 28, Indianapolis Colts 24?
The Chargers kept their composure even as their star players went limping off the field, stunning last season’s Super Bowl champions in the divisional round Sunday.
Their reward is a trip to face unbeaten New England in the AFC championship next Sunday, the third time the Chargers will play the Patriots since the end of the 2006 season.
“Nobody ever flinched,” said Rivers, who injured his right knee after releasing the TD pass to Sproles on the last play of the third quarter.
“No one seemed rattled,” said Tomlinson, the two-time NFL rushing champion who had only 28 yards on seven carries. “Guys just kept playing. It was really amazing to watch, to be honest with you.”
While the Chargers stood around in their huddle waiting for play to resume after getting the ball on a punt early in the fourth quarter, left tackle Marcus McNeill — all 336 pounds of him — and Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates — playing with a dislocated left big toe — bounced along to the music blaring in the dome.
The Chargers were leading 21-17, and Volek was just taking over for Rivers.
“You’ve got to keep your cool,” McNeill said. “We wanted to keep ourselves loose, especially when the game is on the line and it is crunch time. You don’t want nobody playing uptight. You want everybody loose, flying around doing what they have to do.”
The Chargers will be in the AFC championship game for the first time since stunning the Pittsburgh Steelers 17-13 on Jan. 15, 1995, at Three Rivers Stadium. Two weeks later, in their only Super Bowl appearance, they were embarrassed 49-26 by the San Francisco 49ers.
San Diego collapsed against New England in the playoffs last year, losing 24-21 in San Diego. The Chargers were schooled 38-14 by Tom Brady and Randy Moss at Foxborough on Sept. 16.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to think we can win, but we’re going to give it our best, right?” said center Nick Hardwick, who grew up in Indianapolis. “We’re pretty pumped. We’ve got a lot of momentum.”
The Chargers had been considered the league’s most-talented team until the Patriots loaded up on free agents in the offseason. Still, the Chargers’ depth was apparent.
General manager A.J. Smith shopped Turner last offseason but didn’t get an offer he liked. So he kept the bruising back under a $2.35 million, one-year contract, basically as insurance in case L.T. was hurt.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
“I guess we’ve got a little depth, but we’ve got good character on this team,” Hardwick said. “It didn’t matter who was in there. Nobody blinked when L.T. went down or when Philip was out. I don’t think anybody knew what was going on. Hey, just get it done.
“We felt we wanted it more than them, coming into the game,” Hardwick added. “It’s hard when you’ve already got one Super Bowl, to want it. We wanted it.”
Not only did wide receiver Vincent Jackson catch seven passes for 93 yards and one touchdown, but the Chargers had several big screen passes. Besides Sproles’ big TD play, Volek completed a 27-yarder to Legedu Naanee on the game-winning drive.
“They got us out in open space on a lot of smaller guys,” McNeill said. “Even though they’re fast, they overpursue a lot and we get some angles on them. Whenever we got our big bodies on them, we got huge cutting lanes for guys, especially for Sproles, who could cut through the crack of a door if he had to.”
Said Sproles: “When your number’s called, you’ve got to be ready.”
Rivers and Tomlinson both said they probably could have gone back in if really needed. But their backups kept hanging in there.
Now they’ll play the biggest game of their careers, albeit as huge underdogs.
To think, the Chargers stumbled to a 1-3 start under coach Norv Turner and were 5-5 before winning eight straight games.
“Nobody really gave us a shot,” Rivers said. “We were seeing preview shows of you know, ’Can’t wait for Indy-New England.’ We just had us in this locker room, kind of like we just had us when it was 1-3. Nobody would say we’d be playing in the AFC championship in New England when we were 1-3. But we believed it and we kept playing.”
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