Chargers' Backups Are The Difference in Upset Of Defending Champions

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 14, 2008

INDIANAPOLIS, Jan. 13 -- The San Diego Chargers arrived at the raucous RCA Dome to face the defending Super Bowl champions in an AFC semifinal Sunday with one of their most dynamic players, tight end Antonio Gates, hobbled by a bad toe. They limped out of town at day's end with two other key offensive cogs, tailback LaDainian Tomlinson and quarterback Philip Rivers, nursing knee injuries.

It certainly sounds like a formula for how to end a season of twists and turns with another stinging playoff defeat. The Chargers instead leaned on backups such as quarterback Billy Volek and tailback Michael Turner and emerged with a 28-24 triumph over the Indianapolis Colts to advance to next weekend's AFC title game.

"That's what a team is about," Tomlinson said. "In this league, it's hard to play through not only a regular season but also the playoffs and not have guys get hurt. That's the true measure of a team. Guys kept believing and got it done."

The third-seeded Chargers kept the second-seeded Colts from repeating as Super Bowl champions and moved on to a meeting with the unbeaten New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., at 3 p.m. Sunday.

The Chargers (13-5) began the season believing they were Super Bowl material after firing then-coach Marty Schottenheimer following a bitter second-round playoff defeat to the Patriots last year that came on the heels of a 14-2 regular season. Those aspirations looked farfetched when the Chargers stumbled to three losses in their first four games under new coach Norv Turner, but they've won eight straight games since dropping to 5-5 in mid-November.

"It's always about the next game," said Turner, who is taking a team to the conference championship game for the first time as a head coach. "We have our work cut out. We know that. But we'll get ready and give it our best shot. . . . This is what you coach for."

The Chargers won despite allowing Colts quarterback Peyton Manning to throw for 402 yards and three touchdowns.

The Colts (13-4) had leads of 7-0, 10-7, 17-14 and 24-21.

The Chargers just kept losing players. Gates was in the lineup despite a sprained toe suffered in a first-round playoff win over the Tennessee Titans but wasn't himself. Tomlinson, the NFL's rushing leader during the regular season, hurt his left knee on a second-quarter carry and played one more snap the rest of the game.

Rivers, who hurt his left knee during the regular season, hurt his right knee and went to the locker room in the second half. He returned with braces on both knees.

"I had braces everywhere," said Rivers, who threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns.

Rivers said he was ready to come back and play late in the game, but Volek was engineering a winning touchdown drive by then. Volek's touchdown on a one-yard sneak with 4 minutes 50 seconds to play put the Chargers ahead for good.

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