AFC South: Darren Sproles
If I had an MVP vote, I’d use it on Aaron Rodgers. If it was a three-deep ballot, mine would be Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady.
I don’t have an issue with that.
I think MJD is incredibly valuable. No non-QB in the league accounted for nearly as large a percentage of his team's yards.
But the Jaguars could have easily lost 11 games without him. And part of that huge reliance on him is a result not of him forcing them to give him the ball, but of them having nary another consistently viable option to throw or hand the ball to.
Without Jones-Drew, the Jaguars probably wouldn’t have won the five games they did. But five games aren’t enough, and he suffers for being on a bad team.
As Sando goes 10-deep on his weekly post during the season, he creates a secondary question: Who’s the most valuable non-quarterback in the league?
In order on his ballot: Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson, Baltimore running back Ray Rice, New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald and New Orleans running back Darren Sproles.
All but Fitzgerald are in the playoffs, and the Cardinals managed an 8-8 finish.
It’s hard for me to make the case for Jones-Drew as having more value than any of those guys.
I’m guessing many of you will feel differently about a guy who impressively ran through stacked boxes all season long.
But my vote for the best free-agent addition in 2011 goes to Johnathan Joseph, the Houston cornerback who’s been the key component in a transformation of the Texans’ secondary.
A miserable pass defense that ranked dead last in the NFL last season now stands tied for second, a ridiculous jump that could only happen with multiple ingredients:
New coordinator Wade Phillips and his new 3-4 scheme.
A consistent rush from a swarming defensive front, bolstered by the team’s top two rookies, end J.J. Watt and outside linebacker Brooks Reed.
And the addition of Joseph and safety Danieal Manning to a young secondary.
“Joseph has been exactly what they needed,” a scout told me this week. “After a horrible first-round draft pick in 2010 in Kareem Jackson, they made up for it with Joseph. He is fast, athletic and can match up with most receivers in the AFC. He plays bigger than his size (5-foot-11, 191 pounds), because he has good functional strength.
“The added pass rush has helped him, but he is a good player versus run and pass. He was added to the top of the group which allowed players like Jackson and others to play more of a role instead of trying to get things out of them that they were not capable of doing.”
Joseph has regularly matched up with the opponent’s best wide receiver, and his work earned him a Pro Bowl spot.
Sunday, when the Titans are in their base offense and Nate Washington lines up outside, Joseph will track him. In his first two years in the league after he was the 24th pick out of South Carolina in the 2006 draft, Joseph played on the right. The three years after that he was on the left.
Flipping around hasn’t been a problem and he’s happy to be looked at to slow an opponent’s best guy.
“It was something new that I had to adjust to,” Joseph said. “If that gives us our best chance to win, that’s what I am up for. Covering the top guy, you’ve got to go out each week and try to win your battle. We have a saying here about going out and being 1-0, whether it’s one play at a time or one game at a time. If you’re on the top guy, you’re going to get some balls thrown your way.”
The Colts’ Reggie Wayne, the Raiders’ Darrius Heyward-Bey and the Ravens’ Anquan Boldin had big games against the Texans. (Joseph covered Pierre Garcon in both games against Indianapolis.) But in their past nine games, no receiver has accounted for more than 82 yards against them. That was Carolina’s Steve Smith.
The Texans have played 75 percent man coverage, according to defensive backs coach Vance Joseph. He said his top corner has been a fantastic example for the Texans' stable of young, contributing defensive backs: safeties Glover Quin, who’s been excellent as a starter converted from corner, and Troy Nolan, and corners Jackson, Brice McCain and Sherrick McManis.
“He’s practiced every day,” Vance Joseph said. “That was important for our young secondary to see. Every day he was out there working whether he was sore from the game, sore from previous injuries. He worked every day. Those guys take his lead. Every day was game mode, every ball was contested, every ball they could pick off they picked off.
“So that’s the foundation of what we’ve been here on the back end. Johnathan wants to be the best and he’s worked to be the best every day. That’s been amazing for a veteran player of his caliber to come in and practice every day.”
Houston grabbed Joseph from the Bengals with a five-year, $48.75 million contract with $23.5 guaranteed. The Texans were players for Nnamdi Asomugha, the cornerback who was viewed as a singular prize player in free agency. But Asomugha moved slowly, and the Texans feared winding up without either Asomugha or Joseph. Plus, Joseph’s price meant the team could also add Manning at safety.
They were lauded for the strategy and it panned out perfectly.
Pro Football Focus rates Joseph as just the 10th best cornerback in the league at this point. The website can’t always know coverage assignments, but it says he’s given up three touchdowns, catches against him have averaged 12.3 yards, the passer rating on throws into his coverage is 71.3 and quarterbacks have completed 57.9 percent of balls thrown against him.
Those numbers aren’t worthy of being posted in neon lights. But in the context of the Texans’ defense and the Texans’ season, his play has been excellent.
The team and a lot of NFL people agree with Joseph that, so far, things could not have turned out any better. He’s got four interceptions, 15 passes defensed, a forced fumble and rave reviews.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, I would say it’s been a 10,” Joseph said. “It’s been an awesome experience coming in here, being with the guys, adjusting to the different way things are done here. It’s been tremendous all together. There is not one bad thing I can say about the experience that I’ve had.”
1. The secondary, Indianapolis Colts: Safety David Caldwell dropped an end-zone interception that really could have influenced the game early on. The three cornerbacks who were on the field a lot struggled to locate pass-catchers and get them to the ground. Are Terrence Johnson, Jacob Lacey and Chris Rucker good enough to hold up against superior passing teams like New Orleans, Atlanta, Houston and New England coming up later on the schedule? It’s a rhetorical question, and the answer right now is no.
2. Danieal Manning, Houston Texans special-teamer: We’re not knocking Manning the safety here. We’re knocking the guy who blocked a Pittsburgh field goal attempt on the last play before halftime. He circled around and was one of a convoy of Texans following Johnathan Joseph as he scooped up the kick to run it back for a score, and Manning inexplicably shoved kicker Daniel Sepulveda in the back. There was no way the kicker was going to threaten the play, and Houston was very fortunate to survive the lost touchdown. So props to Manning on the block, but he’s got to be smarter from there.
3. Linebackers, Jacksonville Jaguars: The team poured money into the position in the offseason, and Paul Posluszny and Clint Session are good players. But Posluszny dropped a pick and Daryl Smith let Drew Brees guide him out of bounds on an interception return. The backers were repeatedly victimized by running back Darren Sproles, who averaged 10.9 yards a touch, and tight end Jimmy Graham, who caught 10 balls for 132 yards. The Jaguars need more from these guys against players like that.
1. Pierre Garcon, Indianapolis receiver: He can be maddening with his drops -- he had one early against the Bucs. But the reason he’s around is that he can change games with one play. He had two of them for the Colts Monday night, grabbing Curtis Painter passes and doing excellent work after the catch. They were the sort of explosive offensive plays Indianapolis has to have if it’s going to be competitive.
2. Tight ends, Tennessee Titans: Among the people the team has talked of needing to help fill the void without Kenny Britt, Jared Cook was a top name. If teams choose to cover him and attempt to tackle him the way the Browns did, look for him to put up monster numbers. Craig Stevens is regarded as more of a blocker, but he did well to catch a touchdown. If Cook, Stevens and Daniel Graham can continue to be counted as good targets for the accurate Matt Hasselbeck, there is a lot of cause for hope. Those guys complementing receivers Nate Washington, Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins are looking like a strong group.
3. Antonio Smith, Houston Texans defensive end: He’ll represent the entire defensive front here, which has been very good and which just overwhelmed the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line in Sunday’s win. Ben Roethlisberger can be exceptionally tough to drag down, but Smith and the Texans ganged up on him for five sacks and really hit him with great regularity. The secondary is vastly improved, but life is a lot better back when a quarterback like Roethlisberger has little time to work.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 4:
Nickel and dime: The Saints fared great when they spread the field and emptied the backfield in their furious comeback against the Texans last week. It really took advantage of Houston’s lack of cornerback depth. Jacksonville will face the same test. Drew Colemanwas signed as a free agent to upgrade the nickel, and he’ll need to play well against a receiving corps that gets Marcus Colston back. Fourth corner William Middleton will be on the field more too, especially if starting corner Derek Cox (doubtful, groin) is out. And linebackers will be tested in coverage against a team with a lot of weapons that likes to throw to running back Darren Sproles.
Steelers blitzes: Pittsburgh’s been great on defense without blitzing. The Steelers are allowing just 5.5 yards per pass attempt when sending four or fewer rushers, third-best in the league. But last year and so far this year, Matt Schaubis connecting on 71.4 percent of his passes when he’s not blitzed, hitting for 8.2 yards per pass attempt. I’d expect Pittsburgh to bring more pressure to try to get Schaub out of rhythm. The Steelers have forced just one turnover this season.
First quarter points: Three teams in the NFL have yet to score a first-quarter point this season. In Tennessee-at-Cleveland, we’ll see two of them. If the Titans or Browns can find some early offensive rhythm, they’ll get a big advantage. The Titans need to show some early intent, I think. While showing a determination to get Chris Johnson running, they would also be well served to call some plays that include tight end Jared Cookin the early part of the progression. He’s got the potential to be a dynamic downfield matchup problem. With Kenny Britt out, it’s time to start seeing it.
Ah, the memories: The Saints’ last trip to Jacksonville, for the last game of the 2003 regular season, was a memorable one. They trailed 20-13 when they completed a 75-yard miracle touchdown with no time left. The play featured a pass from Aaron Brooks and three laterals before Jerome Pathon scored. But John Carney’s extra point went wide right, leaving the Saints with a 20-19 defeat and eliminating them from playoff contention. The Colts' last trip to Tampa Bay was Oct. 6, 2003. Indianapolis scored 21 points in the final 3:37 of the regulation to tie that game 35-35 before winning it on a Mike Vanderjagt field goal in OT.
Indianapolis hosts the Steelers. Pittsburgh receiver Mike Wallace has been excellent so far. His 16 receptions are the second most in the NFL. He’s tied for fourth in yardage with 233 and his three third-down catches have averaged 22.7 yards.
Jacksonville will need to limit the Cam Newton-to-Steve Smith connection that has torched the Panthers’ first two opponents. Smith had 178 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the loss at Arizona, the biggest receiving yardage day so far in the NFL. And he followed that up with 156 receiving yards against Green Bay.
Houston faces the Saints, who are loaded with weapons. You won’t find Darren Sproles on the list of the league’s leading running backs. He’s only got six carries for 24 yards. We need to look at receiving leaders to find his big impact. He’s tied for third in the league in receptions with 13 catches, and is a threat on every play. His seven third-down catches are the most in the league.
Tennessee hosts Denver, and the Broncos have not shown themselves to have an especially dangerous weapon so far. Their most productive threat right now might not be on offense, but on special teams. But Eric Decker has two receiving touchdowns and a return touchdown and ranks as the second-leading punt return man in the league with a 25.6-yard average. He's slated to start at receiver at LP Field on Sunday.
Who's the guy that must be stopped above the others in order for his team to win?
Chime in on the poll.
Running back Deji Karim will be in the mix for kickoff returns and work initially as a “specialty halfback.”
“A third-down type that can catch the ball and do things, screens, draws, slot receiver, getting the ball in space,” Smith said. “...You have a feature back then you have a companion back which is No. 2, and then you have a specialty halfback which is No. 3, so that’s what he is.” At least at the start. Smith thinks Karim is a little like Darren Sproles.
Jacksonville loves Karim and returner Scotty McGee for their “explosive, playmaking speed,” Smith said.
Well before they got to Karim and McGee in the sixth round, the Jaguars restocked their defensive line.
The Jaguars’ objective wasn’t to go in and get four defensive linemen, but they saw value in them.
Smith spelled out his projections for fifth-rounders Larry Hart and Austen Lane. Kane is more of a left end, while Hart is more of a right end who can work as a designated pass-rusher. That DPR has been difficult to fill for Jacksonville.
“I think this guy is better than all those guys [who’ve failed], myself,” said Smith, who compares Hart to Robert Mathis.
Paul Kuharsky: Noooooooo.
Huge contract and would come with a steep price in draft picks. They can’t afford that with the needs they have beyond corner.
Peter in Nashville wants to know if I see the Titans chasing Dunta Robinson. “I know he isn't the shut down corner he was a few years ago, but he is still very good and would be great when paired with Cortland Finnegan. Is the price too high or will the Titans go for it? The Titans are not cheap, but certainly careful when it comes to signing players. Thoughts?
Paul Kuharsky: Just because a corner with a recognizable name comes free he’s not automatically the right guy for the Titans.
It takes more than that. He’s probably on the downside -- he gave up some big plays last year, he's had a major injury. He’s going to be expensive. They are looking for upside and value. A non-match from my vantage point.
snozzberry in naptown writes: If San Diego gets rid of Darren Sproles, do you see the Colts making a move acquiring him? There is the rule of the final eight to contend with so maybe they would have to release somebody like say Bob Sanders, who would be picked by another team without a doubt. Or what about dropping Joe Addai?
Paul Kuharsky: Please list all the big-time outside free agents the Colts under Bill Polian have brought in?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Joe Addai, who’s going nowhere. Releasing Sanders doesn’t amount to having a free agent signed away, so it would do nothing to help them with the Final Eight rule.
Polian hasn’t been compelled to get a big time returner for years and is pretty set in his ways. If he changes them now, we’ll see it in the draft not with Sproles.
This edition of “My Primary Complaint” hits on some of this offseason fantasy football.
Colby in Houston writes: Hi Paul, Hoping you can clear something up for me. Assuming an uncapped year, how does D. Robinson leaving Houston affect the team in free agency? Doesn't a team have to lose a high profile free agent before they can sign another or is that just for the final eight playoff teams? Is this a signal that Houston may be willing to go after a higher profile free agent? Also, do they receive any compensation like a supplemental draft pick for losing a D. Rob? Thanks
Paul Kuharsky: It doesn’t affect them at all, except that they have a hole at corner and they are down one expensive salary.
They can sign anyone they want -- only the final eight can’t -- but I wouldn’t expect them to be major players in free agency. Maybe one big swing like they did with Antonio Smith last year, and that would leave them with one less need in the draft.
They’ll get a supplemental draft pick for Robinson in the 2011 draft.
Joseph in Kingsport, TN writes: Paul, love the column. Check it obsessively throughout the day. Keep up the wonderful work. Love the detail, insight, non-bias (or is anti-bias a better description of your view? hmmm I'm not quite so sure), and your love for the game of football itself. Being as how you covered the Titans closely for awhile, I'm sure you have plenty of memories of the Titans organization and players. I was just curious, what is your favorite memory of Steve McNair that you'd like to share with us, your faithful readers? Sorry for the nostalgia.
Paul Kuharsky: You are very kind and I appreciate it. Please keep clicking.
The first one that jumps to mind on McNair, and I’ve written about it:
In 1998, when they were still at their temporary facility on the outskirts of Nashville, he came out early for practice. Unprovoked he whimsically took a bunch of blocking pads in the offensive line area, built himself into a teepee, and sat in there doing quiet Native American style chants. Kind of makes me laugh picturing it. Just kind of symbolic of his looseness and humor.
Shaun in Nashville, TN writes: Paul, Is there any chance that the Titans move Vincent Fuller to corner, and let one of the young guys play the nickel while they mature? Does Fuller have the skill set to play corner?
Paul Kuharsky: No, he doesn’t. He’s not an outside cover guy. He’s a safety who’s very good covering an inside receiver. You weaken yourself at two spots if you try to move him outside.
Dustin in Stanford CA writes: Hey Paul, I was wondering where I could find the dates of all of the important off season events? (Combine, Start of Free Agency, Compensatory Draft Pick Announcements, Supplemental Draft, etc.) Thanks!
Paul Kuharsky: Here is a good list.
Peter in Nashville writes: Hey Paul, It seems like of all the years to trade away your 2nd round pick, this was a bad year to do it. I am not saying Jared Cook isn't going to pan out, but with a draft class this deep, it seems unfortunate. Titans could have gotten a very good insurance policy on Young by drafting a good QB in the second round without raising the scrutiny of drafting one in the 1st round. Thoughts?
Paul Kuharsky: Never a great year not to have one -- second round picks are often the value/production home run. (The Titans with Cook and the Jaguars with Derek Cox both traded seconds to New England for thirds last year. AFC South helping rebuild the Patriots.) VY's their guy, so I'm not sure that second would have been a quarterback with all the needs they have.
Unless Cook turns into a Antonio Gates or Anthony Gonzalez, it’s easy to second guess. But last year you would have said nice to see them be aggressive. And it’s way too early for us to determine just what they got in Cook.
Henry Milton from parts unknown writes: I know that the Titans have needs on defense, but Kenny Britt, Justin Gage, Nate Washington, Bo Scaife and Alge Crumpler aren't nearly enough catching the football even if they had Peyton Manning throwing it. Help isn't going to come from Paul Williams and Lavelle Hawkins, and they can't count on Jared Cook. What are the Titans going to do to get better on the offensive side of the ball?
Paul Kuharsky: I disagree completely.
You failed to mention the team’s No. 1 offensive weapon, Chris Johnson. And Vince Young’s a huge run threat. With those two, a receiving trio of Britt, Washington and Gage with Scaife and Johnson as additional outlets is plenty good enough to win with. Why debate the fourth receiver? Under Heimerdinger, that guy isn’t not playing unless one of the three ahead of him is hurt.
Cook may still be great. He’s going to get every chance and it’s far too early to judge.
The primary thing they are going to do to get better on offense, I think, is get better on defense.
And the Titans top three receivers would all be very good with Peyton Manning throwing to them.
larod201 in New Orleans, LA writes: Do you think Jason Jones has the skills to move to DE for the Titans, at least on running downs? A lot of people had him projected there when he came out of college and he seems to lack the bulk to play inside & stay healthy. It would give the Titans more flexibility in this year's draft if he could. What's your opinion?
Paul Kuharsky: Yes, he could play defensive end. But he’s not as good there as he is at tackle. They want him to work the weights and become sturdier, and I expect he will. If you move him, then you have a hole at tackle. So why put him at his lesser position when you have to fill a spot anyway?
Dunta Robinson had a lot of nice things to say about Houston in an e-mail to John McClain.
Mario Williams will participate in a USO tour.
Owen Daniels skipping training camp would accomplish little, says Alan Burge.
What the Texans are scouting at the combine, from McClain.
A thank you note to Robinson from Lance Zierlein.
Robinson’s not worth the money, says Stephanie Stradley.
Gary Brackett won’t be getting a franchise tag, according to the AP.
Phillip B. Wilson looks at a revision of the 2009 draft.
John Oehser on the combine and Darren Sproles.
Oehser’s position-by-position review gets to centers.
Why do people dismiss Joseph Addai? Deshawn Zombie examines the question.
A petition pushing the Jaguars to draft Tim Tebow. I don’t believe it’s going to happen, and my question for everyone who says it will solve their ticket sale issues is this: How long do those people buy tickets if he’s not good? (Thanks to Stampede Blue for the link.)
At the combine, the Jaguars' top interest will be the top pass-rushers, says Michael C. Wright.
Recent thoughts from Jack Del Rio on David Garrard, in case you missed this Wednesday evening.
Drew Rosenhaus is mum about his Titans free-agents to be, says Terry McCormick.
Joe Biddle contemplates the Titans in free agency.
Jeremy Cain and the Titans settled a compensation claim, says McCormick.
A running back going against an unfamiliar team can be a surprise.
No matter how much film a defense has watched, a guy can be shiftier, more slippery, faster, stronger or tougher to bring down than he appears.
Division games are, of course, a different deal.
There are few such surprises between teams that face each other twice a year and often gear their personnel moves and roster construction to give themselves the best chance of conquering their most frequent foes.
So what does it say that the AFC South boasts the NFL’s three best running backs when we measure only division games?
This chart comes courtesy of the Titans supplemental weekly notes.
Is this a good thing that shows how good these three backs are? Is it a bad thing that shows how these defenses, even as familiar as they are with these backs, still can’t stop them?
I’m curious about your interpretations.
SAN DIEGO -- Eric Soderburg and Eric Bolin of ESPN Stats & Analysis provide us with some excellent insight through numbers to what didn't work for the Colts Saturday in their OT loss at San Diego.
As had been the case through much of the season, running back Joseph Addai simply could not get going. His 16 carries for 44 yards included a first-quarter touchdown but little else.
The Colts couldn't rush the ball on early downs, averaging just 2.2 yards on first and second down combined.
The poor rushing on early downs put the Colts in third-and-long situations on 10 of 14 third-down plays.
With Darren Sproles leading the way, the Chargers dominated the run game.
|Harry How/Getty Images|
|Colts quarterback Peyton Manning threw for 310 yards and a touchdown but could not get the Colts past San Diego.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
SAN DIEGO -- Their faces blank, their steps a shuffle, the Indianapolis Colts trudged to their buses Saturday night. They were still digesting another too-early exit from the playoffs. They still were coming to terms with how a 23-17 overtime loss to the host San Diego Chargers meant another round of questions about why they aren't going where they believe they belong.
"I've played 10 years man, it's only ended good once," center Jeff Saturday said, referring to Super Bowl XLI at the end of the 2006 season. "It's awful. What are you going to say? How do you make that finish good? You come out with full expectations to beat this team and play bad. That sums it up."
The Colts of president Bill Polian and quarterback Peyton Manning will always have that one Lombardi Trophy, but they now own a 7-8 record in the playoffs. Tony Dungy, who joined the Colts a bit later, is 7-6 in the postseason with a horseshoe on his hat.
Polian bristled at a question about the overall body of playoff work.
"I'm not interested in bodies of work or underachieving or any of that," he said. "That's your guys' stuff, that has nothing to do with me. I'm not even going to deal with that.
"You've got to be pretty good to get here, and it's about matchups. And this is a tough team to matchup against so we have some work to do in that regard. We know what we have to do. Nobody underachieved on this team this year, I can assure you of that. Absolutely no one."
Individually, perhaps not. Collectively on this day, however, it certainly seems fair to suggest that the only team in the history of the league to win 12 or more games in six consecutive seasons, the only coach to go to the playoffs for 10 consecutive years and a club that carried a league best nine-game winning streak into this postseason should have been able to do more.
"We were a confident team, we figured we were going to pull it out," safety Antoine Bethea said. "We had a lot of close games, we pulled them out. We figured we were going to do the same this game."
The play the Colts pointed to as their undoing wasn't a drive-extending defensive holding against cornerback Tim Jennings in overtime or the 22-yard game-winning touchdown run by Darren Sproles three plays later. It was a failed third down by the offense.
Pinned deep in their own end by a perfect Mike Scifres punt, the Colts had a three-point lead and the ball on the final play before the two-minute warning of regulation, facing a third-and-2 from their own 9-yard line.
Get those two yards and a first down, and the Colts keep possession. Get that first down and the Chargers are out of timeouts and the Colts are milking away the final seconds of a win. Get that first down and the Colts are wondering if Sunday's wild-card playoff results would send them to Nashville or Pittsburgh for a divisional round game next weekend.
Instead linebacker Tim Dobbins burst through the line and smothered Manning for an eight-yard sack and forced the Colts to punt.
"When we've got the ball and we've got to make a first down to ice the game, we weren't able to do it," Dungy said. "We were trying to make a first down. We know if we make one first down, the game is over. We had a quick pass and we didn't get it off."
"I'm not going to get into the specific plays," Manning said. "Just the Chargers made a good play on that and obviously it was disappointing that we weren't able to convert that third down."
The Chargers drove to a game-tying 26-yard field goal. They quashed any chance the Colts had at driving to a field goal with only 24 seconds to work with. The Chargers won the overtime coin toss and moved 75 yards to the touchdown that rocked Qualcomm Stadium more than the pregame military flyover.
While Sproles was fantastic on offense, the running back and return man was outdone on special teams by Scifres, who averaged a net of 51.7 yards on six punts that placed the Colts, in order, at their 10, 19, 3, 7, 9 and 1 to start on offense.
"Their punter, that guy is unbelievable," Saturday said. "He gets five game balls. They put us inside the 10 at least three or four times, inside the five once or twice. That's a long way to tote it against any defense."
Polian called it a "Hall of Fame game" for Scifres.
The best NFL teams make the most of sudden change plays, a turnover that flips field position, a call that goes in their favor.
But the sudden change the Colts were coming to terms with is the sort they have no interest in getting good at, the kind where, in a flash, the season shifts to offseason.
"It's a new season now, so you lose, you go home and we lost," Bethea said. "The nine-game win streak, it was good the way we ended the [regular] season. But you lose and you go home."
Minutes later, Bethea fell in line with some of his teammates, starting that journey home with a walk down a dim, narrow hallway, where wheels on equipment carts rattled on a dimpled floor, creating white noise into which a season of promise could fade.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
SAN DIEGO -- So much for a nine-game winning streak worth of momentum.
This time, it was the San Diego Chargers' late dramatics that seized the game. Indianapolis, a team led by MVP Peyton Manning that no one wanted to face in the AFC playoffs, is no longer part of the field following a 23-17 loss to San Diego.
It's hardly the end of an era, but it is the end of a remarkable season.
The Colts thrived once Manning got healthy and an offensive line got healthier, but they lived on the edge with great frequency, winning far more often by inches than miles. No matter how good Manning was, he couldn't do it all Saturday. Once again his run game wasn't sufficient and this time he ran into a defense that made some big plays and an opponent able to score on crucial drives.
This time the Chargers won the coin toss -- the Colts called heads, it landed tails -- and made the plays on offense to win it. With LaDainian Tomlinson out with an injury after a minimal showing, Darren Sproles helped key the win in a coming-out party on national TV.
In OT, Philip Rivers lobbed a ball up with little hope of completing it and drew a crucial holding call against Tim Jennings that produced a first down. A facemask against Clint Session added yards to position Sproles for his game winning 22-yard touchdown burst.
He and the Chargers find out tomorrow if they go to Nashville or Pittsburgh next weekend. A Miami wins sends the Chargers to face the Titans; a Baltimore victory means San Diego plays the Steelers.
The Colts are on their way back to Indianapolis, with no reservations for another flight necessary and another playoff disappointment in the books.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Both players were game time decision.
Gates had an ankle injury. Both Tomlinson and Gates didn't practice all week.