Tough week ends on high note in San Diego

SAN DIEGO -- Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal did his best to downplay the significance of his team's 35-10 win over Houston on Sunday.

He pointed out that San Diego still has three losses this season. He noted that the Chargers haven't beaten a team with a winning record. He also mentioned that spending three days practicing in Phoenix -- the Chargers moved to Arizona because of wildfires that raged through Southern California -- wasn't as taxing as an outsider might think.

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A look at the Chargers-Texans game following a week in which wildfires ravaged Southern California. Photos

"It was like going to a bowl game," Neal said. "The toughest part was trying to find some healthy food to eat."

That all might be true, but Neal did concede what was obvious Sunday: The Chargers should be pleased with how they performed -- especially given their circumstances.

Yes, the Texans are struggling with their own issues after a surprising start. Still, the Chargers' effort was impressive because they played as if they had had nothing else on their minds the previous few days.

If this is how San Diego looks after a week of duress, just imagine what this team can do under normal conditions.

Something changed for the Chargers on Sunday. For most of this season, they've been a team trying to adjust to new coach Norv Turner and a ton of lofty expectations that hovered over their heads like storm clouds. Now, they appear to have found a comfort zone, a transition that had plenty to do with the closeness they gained by coping with last week's adversity.

As Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates said, "I was paying a lot of attention to what happened this week because my home was in the area affected by the fires. But the support we gave one another was amazing. You could see that no matter what happens here, we can deal with it as a family."

The Chargers' ability to "deal with it" was helped by having faced similar upheaval when wildfires hit San Diego during the 2003 season. That experience helped the team prepare better for potential chaos this time around.

Instead of practicing in a high school gym for a week as they did four years ago, the Chargers quickly decided to move practices to the Arizona Cardinals' facility. Team security also checked on the players' family members who remained in the area, and a toll-free number was set up so phone calls could be more manageable. If any player had a loved one in jeopardy, the team seemingly had a way to respond.

It also helped that the Chargers knew how much they meant to the city.

After the 2003 fires, running back LaDainian Tomlinson said, the players "felt sorry" for themselves and "talked negatively about playing the game." This time, they wanted Sunday's contest played in San Diego because they knew how much it could raise spirits.

Reserve offensive tackle Roman Oben said a swimming instructor who teaches his children e-mailed him to support the Chargers' decision to play at home. The woman had lost her house in the fires and still felt it would be encouraging to see a San Diego win.

"I know it sounds cliché, but this is one example of how sports really can bring people together," Oben said.

With this many factors going for them, it's not hard to see why the Chargers routed the Texans. From the minute the team ran out for pregame introductions to the moment California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger addressed the crowd, you knew this was going to be the Chargers' day. It was just a matter of how ugly it would get. And it got real ugly real quick.

Gates raced by a hapless Houston secondary for two touchdown receptions from Philip Rivers. Second-year cornerback Antonio Cromartie also was a one-man wrecking crew. He produced two touchdowns in the first half -- one on a fumble recovery and the other on a 70-yard interception return -- and he nearly scored on a second interception.

San Diego was so dominant that Rivers attempted just 11 passes while the defense tallied five turnovers. This contest, frankly, was over before the first quarter ended.

Now, the question is whether the Chargers can maintain that momentum as they push toward the midpoint of the season. After a 1-3 start, San Diego has beaten Denver, Oakland and Houston by a combined score of 104-27. There is a different vibe around this bunch now. The team is more confident and more comfortable, and the offense looks more balanced with the addition of wide receiver Chris Chambers, whom the Chargers acquired before the trade deadline earlier this month.

Those are some nice factors for a team heading into the roughest part of its schedule. After a road game at Minnesota, San Diego will face Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Baltimore, Kansas City and Tennessee in consecutive weeks. Not only does each of those teams currently have a winning record but the five have a combined record of 25-10.

"That's why I'm stressing that we haven't arrived yet," Neal said. "This is no offense to the Texans, but we beat a team that has been struggling. We're going to find out what we're really made of in the next few weeks."

Still, it's fair to say the Chargers discovered quite a bit about their character Sunday. There were plenty of reasons for them to come out flat, especially as they had a bye the previous weekend. Or they could've cruised once they pounced on the Texans early.

Instead, the Chargers kept coming at Houston with the kind of aggressiveness that marked San Diego's play when it went 14-2 last season. That's an indication that better days are ahead.

If there's any blessing that came out of last week's tragedy, it's that the Chargers rediscovered how strong they really are.

Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.