NFL Nation: Colts-Chargers

 
 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.

 
 Christopher Hanewinckel/US Presswire
 Chargers tailback Darren Sproles rushed for 105 yards and two touchdowns, including the winning 22-yard scoring run.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

SAN DIEGO -- The formula to end the Indianapolis Colts' nine-game winning streak?

Apparently, it starts with a 5-foot-6, 181-pound tailback and a punter.

Unusual?

This is the 2008 San Diego Chargers we're talking about. They were the only team in NFL history to qualify for the playoffs after starting 4-8 and the first 8-8 division winner in 23 years.

The Chargers are used to doing it the hard way.

"We belong, we belong," San Diego linebacker Stephen Cooper bellowed after the Chargers beat the Colts 23-17 in overtime Saturday night. "I don't think there are any more doubts."

There have been doubts about Darren Sproles his entire career. Before this season, he said nobody thought he belonged way back in his pee-wee playing days when he was even more of a pee-wee than the rest of the players.

Sproles is as big as anyone in San Diego right now after scoring on a 22-yard touchdown run in overtime to put the Chargers in the divisional playoffs. San Diego has won five straight games.

With future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson sidelined in the second half, it was Sproles who shouldered the load for San Diego. Known as a terrific change-of-pace back and a premier return man, Sproles took the role of bell-cow back in the most crucial time of the season. Sproles accounted for 328 all-purpose yards, the third most in NFL playoff history.

"He came up big," San Diego fullback Jacob Hester said. "He plays a lot bigger than he is."

Sproles had 105 yards on 23 carries. He had 114 yards rushing last week against Denver. There is a strong chance Sproles will be needed for big yardage again next week. After the game, Tomlinson, who has a groin injury he suffered last week, would not commit either way when asked if he would be ready in the next round. He had five carries for 25 yards before it was decided he couldn't play any longer.

"Sometimes, you have to trust your guys," Tomlinson said.

It was a good call on Sproles. However, Sproles did make a crucial mistake. While running hard to the goal line late in the third quarter for what would be a go-ahead touchdown, Sproles fumbled into the end zone. He called his game-winning touchdown a makeup. Sproles, who is sure to be attractive on the open market as a free agent this offseason, more than made up for his blunder.

While Sproles was an unlikely workhorse, the Chargers received other heroic efforts. None may have been bigger than punter Mike Scifres.

The Charges controlled the field-position battle on Scifres' leg. All six of his punts went inside the Colts' 20, the first time in playoff history a punter had six punts go inside the 20. Scifres pinned Indianapolis inside its 10-yard line three times, including the 1-yard line on the Colts' final possession of the game, which led to a San Diego field goal that tied the score in the final seconds of regulation and sent the game to overtime.

"Best punter in the league," San Diego receiver Chris Chambers said.

While Sproles and Scifres, two of San Diego's role players, had big games, one star gutted it out and was a major contributor. Like Tomlinson, tight end Antonio Gates didn't practice all week after being injured against Denver. He had suffered a high ankle sprain.

He had his foot in a walking boot all week. Some in the Chargers' organization didn't know if he would be able to play. But Gates had a game-high eight catches for 87 yards. He caught Philip Rivers' first five completions.

Here are some other key elements to the Chargers' win:

Stopping Manning: A day after he won his third NFL MVP award, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning got his numbers. He threw for 310 yards on 25 of 42 passing. But he didn't control the game.

The Chargers' defense did.

"You hold the Colts to 17 points and you take that any time," San Diego safety Eric Weddle said. "We clamped down when we needed to. We made some big plays."

None was bigger than the Colts' final offensive play of the season. It was the only time Manning was sacked. San Diego pressured him often but it saved its one sack for most crucial of times. San Diego linebacker Tim Dobbins crushed Manning on third-and-2 from the Colts' nine with 2:30 to play in the fourth quarter. San Diego was out of time outs. The game would have been all but over had the Colts gotten the first down.

"We got him when we needed to," Dobbins said.

Overtime: The Chargers won the coin flip when it turned up tails. The Colts called heads.
The Chargers never gave up the ball and were helped by three Colts penalties on the 11-play, 75-yard drive.

Riding high: After their slow start, the Chargers are now the dangerous Super Bowl contender they were expected to be.

Neither the Pittsburgh Steelers nor the Tennessee Titans would be thrilled to meet this team. Pittsburgh won in the final seconds at home against San Diego in November and the Chargers beat the Titans twice in 2007, including in the playoffs.

San Diego is playing as well as any team in the league right now. And Saturday's play from players such as Sproles and Scifres showed it is a total team effort.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

SAN DIEGO -- Would anybody want to play the San Diego Chargers right now?

At least until the Miami Dolphins, who have won five straight, play Sunday against Baltimore, the Chargers are the hottest team remaining in the AFC.

That's what happens in when you knock off the Indianapolis Colts.

In a wild overtime game, the Chargers dispatched the Colts, 23-17 in overtime, on a 22-yard touchdown run by Darren Sproles on a drive that was fueled by three Colts penalties. It was the second straight postseason in which the Chargers ended the Colts' season. San Diego won in Indianapolis in the divisional playoff round last season.

However, the Chargers won the game that counts the most and ends the Colts' winning streak at nine games.

The Chargers became the first team in NFL history to make the postseason after starting the season 4-8. The Chargers trailed Denver by three games in the AFC West with three games remaining.

Now the Chargers are the Super Bowl contender people expected them to be heading into the season.

San Diego will play at Tennessee next Saturday if Miami beats Baltimore. If the Ravens win at Miami, San Diego will play at Pittsburgh next Sunday.

With San Diego clicking in all three phases of the game, no one would want this team to come knocking.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

SAN DIEGO -- There was no end of regulation magic for the Colts in Qualcomm Stadium this time.

To top the Chargers again and advance to the divisional round of the AFC playoffs, the Colts are going to have to get it done in overtime.

Peyton Manning had 24 seconds with two timeouts and the ball at the Colts' 19-yard line. Expectations are that if he's got the ball at the end he'll find a way, but with those time and yardage constraints and the Chargers defense playing well, it was too much too ask.

So we'll have a coin flip and sudden death in a game that's delivering all the drama the NFL can ask for and more than fans of the Colts and Chargers may be able to stand.

Remember, all replay reviews are initiated from the booth in extra time.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

SAN DIEGO -- Can Peyton Manning do it again?

The game is tied with 24 seconds remaining, the Colts have two timeouts and the ball at their own 19. A divisional round trip to Nashville or Pittsburgh on the line.

The Colts have a chance to get Adam Vinatieri in range for the win but at worst, they're going to get overtime.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

SAN DIEGO -- The Chargers' defense had been waiting and waiting, not showing what they planned on a play until the play clock was down to about 10 seconds.

Then they tried a player substitution and got caught sleeping, saw the Colts hurry a play instead of making all their adjustments and got burned for a giant scoring play -- Peyton Manning to Reggie Wayne for 72 yards and a touchdown over an unaware Antonio Cromartie -- that put the Colts up 17-14 in the third period.

It's the kind of play that begs for a thorough breakdown, especially if the lead holds up.

My hope is to try to dissect it for you after this is over.

But the Chargers are driving, so things may change again quickly.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

SAN DIEGO -- Qualcomm Stadium erupted when running back LaDainian Tomlinson was introduced with the San Diego starting offense. Tomlinson was riding a stationary bike to warm up before the game and he went back to the bike after San Diego's second possession. Tomlinson was a game time decision with a groin injury.

Tomlinson rushed for 13 yards and a first down on the first play and a two-yard run on the second play. He appears to be running with some pain.

The Chargers then went to their other injured star, tight end Antonio Gates, on the third play with a short pass. Like Tomlinson, Gates missed all week of practice. He had an ankle injury.

Chargers fans are in such a good mood that coach Norv Turner was cheered by fans. Turner was not so popular three weeks ago but after the Chargers rebounded from a 4-8 start to a 8-8 finish and AFC West division title, Turner got back in the fans' good graces.

Meanwhile, the NFL coaching carousel continues to turn. Dallas is looking at Denver coach Mike Shanahan, who was fired Tuesday, for a potential job in 2010.

Is it strange? Sure, but it's Jerry Jones. He does things differently. This situation could appeal to Shanahan. Those close to him said he may be leaning toward taking the season off. With a year off and the possibility of taking over the Cowboys in 2010, Shanahan could return refreshed.

Also, it is being reported that Oakland interviewed Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride on Saturday. He has been one of the team's top choices. If Gilbride doesn't end up with Oakland, the team could turn to interim coach Tom Cable who was 4-8 in 2008.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

SAN DIEGO -- Referee Ron Winter and his crew called more penalties than any other crew this season, according to the NBC broadcast of the game.

The San Diego Chargers have been called for more pass interference penalties in the league this season with 13.

Put those two together and you get an advantage for the pass-happy Colts.

They already got a 30-yard pass interference penalty against Quentin Jammer, though the drive fizzled, ending with a punt.

Keep an eye on the frequency of flags and the Chargers defensive backs.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

SAN DIEGO -- LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates are active for Saturday night's game between the Chargers and the Colts.

Both players were game time decision.

Tomlinson has a groin injury. The team is hopeful he will be able to hold up through the game. If not, backups Darren Sproles and Jacob Hester will play key roles.

Gates had an ankle injury. Both Tomlinson and Gates didn't practice all week.

Colts-Chargers inactives

January, 3, 2009
1/03/09
7:12
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

SAN DIEGO -- Here are the inactives for the Colts and Chargers:

Colts:
RB Lance Ball
DB Jamie Silva
LB Gary Brackett
G Jamey Richard
G Mike Pollak
WR Pierre Garcon
DT Daniel Muir
DE Curtis Johnson

The Colts cut running back Najeh Davenport and added defensive tackle Michael Toudouze

Chargers:
QB Charlie Whitehurst
FB Billy Latsko
FB Mike Tolbert
LB Brandon Siler
G Kynan Forney
T Corey Clark
WR Malcolm Floyd
DT Ian Scott

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

SAN DIEGO -- Chris Mortensen's report that LaDainian Tomlinson has a more serious injury than expected certainly puts his ability to significantly help the Chargers in their wild card game Saturday night against visiting Indianapolis in doubt.

Still, there is a chance Tomlinson will play. He will try to show the San Diego training and coaching staff he is able to play in pre-game warm-ups. Tomlinson hasn't practice all week. The Chargers will likely try to put him on the field to see how much he can play before backups Darren Sproles and Jacob Hester take a bigger role.

Remember, Tomlinson was injured last season in the playoffs. He had just two carries in the AFC title game against New England. Tomlinson caught grief for not playing with a knee injury while San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers played in the game despite a tearing his ACL the week before.

Tomlinson is a proud player and he admitted earlier in the year it bothered him that he caught heat for not playing much against the Patriots. He will try to play Saturday night. Have no doubt about that.

The Chargers also may be without star tight end Antonio Gates. He has an ankle injury. Like Tomlinson, Gates didn't practice all week. Both players were banged up against Denver last week.

Like Tomlinson, Gates was hurt for the playoffs last season and was unable to give his full effort. Thus, San Diego will again not be at full strength.

Tomlinson and Gates are coach Norv Turner's top options on offense. Now, quarterback Philip Rivers may have to rely on other players such as receivers Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers as well as Sproles and Hester.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Is it the backs? Is it the line? Is it the defense they are going against?

 
 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
 Indianapolis running back Joseph Addai and the Colts need to get it done on the ground if they're going to beat the Chargers this Saturday.

Ask the Indianapolis Colts why they've struggled to run the ball this season and you'll get a variety of answers, none of which point to a singular problem.

"It's been a little bit of everything," coach Tony Dungy said. "It's been offensive linemen in differently, different backs in, our backs being a little bit nicked up and not getting that rhythm with the linemen. It's been just assignments, penalties here or there, heard this wrong, didn't block this right, very much what I said about the run defense in '06. When it comes together and we do it right, I think we're very capable of having some big run days."

As they prepare for a trip to San Diego for a wild card playoff game Saturday night, the Colts rushing offense has been more of an obstacle than a help in getting there, producing just 73.6 yards a game and 3.4 yards a carry compared to 106.6 and 3.8 in 2007.

In five games they didn't get to 2 yards a carry, in seven they didn't total 75 yards.

Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes produced nearly identical numbers, and that level of production could make it difficult for the Colts to get past the Chargers or advance far in the playoffs.

"Our goal every game all season long has been to try to establish the run," Peyton Manning said. "You always kind of feel like, 'Today might be the day that things are going to pop.' I think if you look at us statistically, we've always tried to be balanced. We always feel the most comfortable when we're balanced. There's no surprise that we're going to try to be balanced from here on out.

"It's good to have Joe Addai back [from a shoulder injury]. Dominic, I tell you, what he's done this year has been great. Thank goodness we were able to get him back. Both of those guys are going to be key factors in the game. They've done a good job with the passing game, but there's no question that we'd like to be able to get some running game going. We could mix up our drop back and play action off of that. That's certainly the plan going in."

If the Colts don't run effectively early against San Diego, their play-action game will lose its bite. And without the run or the play-fake, more will fall on Manning. There is no quarterback in the playoffs better equipped to deal with such imbalance, but it's a lot to ask.

Still, while Indianapolis might crave balance, the Colts have proven they do not need it to be successful.

Ask Dungy if it matters whether the Colts run better in the playoffs and he does not turn to predictable coach-speak.

"I guess it probably doesn't matter because we've won nine in a row the way it is," he said. "But, especially if you get in bad weather situations, you're going to have to run more and we have to be able to run effectively when we need to. We'll work on that and continue to work on that. It hasn't been up to our standards, and we'll continue to work, but I think we'll have both of our backs healthy.

"If [right guard] Mike Pollak's OK, we'll have our starting line healthy, and that will certainly help us. The thing we have to do is be able to run when it counts. We've missed a bunch of third-and-ones in the last five or six games. We've given the ball back to people when one third-and-1 conversion would ice the game. You don't want to do that in the playoffs. You're playing good quarterbacks, and you don't want to put it in their hands... That's where we have to be a little bit better, but I think we will."

In their regular season win at Qualcomm Stadium on Nov. 23, the Colts ran 23 times for 91 yards. A week later, the Chargers allowed Atlanta to control the clock while running the ball 43 times.

But in a four-game winning streak to close the season and win the AFC West, San Diego held runners to 4.3 yards a carry.

With a good postseason showing, Addai can do a lot to redeem himself from a season where he saw his ground yards cut nearly in half from his 1,072 in 2007 to 544 in 2008.

He's not making pledges or promises, however.

"It's really just taking advantage of what we get, no matter what," he said. "We're still going to stick with the run, we're still going to mix it up with the pass, no matter what. That's the biggest thing, just trusting everybody around you and not losing faith.

"I think we've been pretty good handling those situations."

 
 Robert Benson/US Presswire
 Norv Turner reacts Sunday as his team drops another close game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

SAN DIEGO -- Chargers defensive lineman Jacques Cesaire tried to digest another last-second loss that has put the preseason Super Bowl favorite on the brink of playoff extinction.

Finally, Cesaire gave up trying to figure out how this team has become, at 4-7, a playoff picture outsider.

"We just can't catch a break," Cesaire sighed.

So true in a sense. The latest chapter came in Sunday night's 23-20 loss to Indianapolis, which ended with cold-blooded, last-minute super hero, Adam Vinatieri, booting a 51-yard field goal as time expired. The Chargers, who fought back from a 20-10 deficit with less than six minutes to go, have now lost four games in the final minute, including last week at Pittsburgh. The Chargers fell to 0-2 with last-second killers to Carolina and Denver. San Diego lost those four games by a total of seven points.

From being in the San Diego locker room, one gets the feeling that the Chargers are starting to think this: It just might not be our year after all.

That's a bitter pill for a team that won 25 regular-season games the past two years and advanced to the AFC title game last season. Many NFL personnel folks believe the 2008 Chargers are as talented as any team in the league.

Yet, they just can't win games.

"It's like Groundhog Day," San Diego linebacker Shaun Phillips said. "The same old thing keeps on happening over and over again."

Added safety Eric Weddle: "It's emotionally draining what we are going through right now. It's so tough."

They just can't catch a break.

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