INDIANAPOLIS -- Before he left the locker room on Sunday evening, San Diego wide receiver Keenan McCardell pulled on a handsome topcoat over his expensive suit, a move that was both sensible and symbolic.
Baby, it was cold outside the RCA Dome, and McCardell wanted to be sufficiently girded against the blustery blasts that blew light snowflakes along slippery downtown streets. And, oh, yeah, even with a 26-17 victory that snuffed out the Indianapolis Colts dreams of an undefeated 2005 season and a share of immortality, the Chargers are still out in the playoff cold entering their final two games.
Which was a point McCardell kept making to his celebrating teammates.
"This was nice, very gratifying, a great way to bounce back (after last week's upset loss to the Miami Dolphins)," said McCardell, who torched the Indianapolis secondary for three catches, 88 yards and one touchdown. "But there's still a lot of work to be done. And if we don't follow this up strong next weekend (at Kansas City), it will just be a nice win that was wasted. We have a long way to go yet. We've got to take care of business."
And, given the various permutations of the AFC playoff chase, that might not be enough.
Indeed, the Chargers, who last season won the AFC West with a 12-4 record, could well become one of the best teams in recent league history not to make the playoffs. At 9-5, San Diego could win its remaining two games (against the Chiefs on Saturday and then at Denver on New Year's Day) and still be shut out of the Super Bowl tournament. San Diego currently trails Jacksonville and Pittsburgh for the two AFC wild-card berths and will need outside help.
On Sunday, though, the Chargers certainly helped themselves.
The potent San Diego offense rang up 453 yards, looked explosive and versatile, and was really only stopped when it stopped itself with turnovers. An interception by quarterback Drew Brees on a third-quarter pass on which he was heavily pressured, and then a fumble on the ensuing series when he was sacked by Indianapolis end Dwight Freeney, led to the Colts' only two touchdowns.
But on the 10 offensive series in which the Chargers didn't just give the ball away (not counting a late-game possession in which they punted with 21 seconds remaining in the game), they scored six times. And there were stretches in which the offense, with Brees very efficient operating out of a no-huddle mode that limited defensive substitutions, looked as if it could not be stopped.
San Diego tailback LaDainian Tomlinson had a fairly pedestrian outing, rushing for just 76 yards on 24 carries. But he battered the Indianapolis defense inside and got help from backup Michael Turner, who sealed the outcome with an 83-yard touchdown run with just over two minutes remaining. In the passing game, Brees was mostly sharp and he did a nice job distributing the ball, as five different players had at least three catches each.
Brees completed 22 of 33 passes for 255 yards, threw the short ball very well, and was on-target with some key deep throws.
No one came up bigger for Brees than McCardell, who scored on a 29-yard reception in the first quarter and then authored perhaps the game's signature play with a 54-yard grab in the fourth quarter that set up Nate Kaeding's go-ahead field goal. On the latter play, McCardell drifted behind Indianapolis' Cover 2 zone, when cornerback Jason David and free safety Bob Sanders quit running, apparently thinking Brees had been sacked.
"We knew we were going to take a few shots at them on offense and we were pretty confident we had some things that could work," McCardell said. "A team like that, with an offense that can score like they do, you want to keep attacking, and we did."
San Diego attacked even more on defense, though, shutting down Indy's running game and making life miserable for Peyton Manning nearly every time the Colts quarterback dropped into the pocket. In last year's loss here, the Chargers sacked Manning four times and they equaled that total on Sunday afternoon, with "edge" rushers Shawne Merriman and Steve Foley consistently in the backfield.
That permitted the San Diego secondary, regarded by many scouts as one of the worst in the NFL, to more than hold its own. Manning threw for 336 yards but, unable to set his feet much of the day, had trouble getting into a rhythm with people in his face. The wideout tandem of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne combined for 18 catches and 226 yards, but it wasn't as if they ran unchecked through the San Diego secondary.
Also notable was that the Colts rarely ran their trademark "stretch" off-tackle play and that James, who last week caught nine passes against Jacksonville, was rarely used as a receiver despite being open in the flat several times.
"I think that, by shutting off the run, we made them one-dimensional," acknowledged San Diego defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. "Now, that one dimension is still pretty good. But they had scored in 31 straight quarters. So when we got through the first quarter and they hadn't scored, we figured we were doing something right."
You can tell it was a big win for the Chargers because head coach Marty Schottenheimer, who typically doesn't permit his assistants to speak to the media, graciously lifted the gag order on Phillips after the game. But the Chargers will need similarly big performances over the next two weeks, and some help from outside, to reach the playoffs for a second straight season.
"This was a first step," said Merriman, who had two sacks and raised his total to nine for the season, putting himself back into the rookie of the year race. "But we need to keep our focus now and take care of business. We can only control what we do and today, I would say, we controlled it pretty well."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.