By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009
SAN DIEGO, Jan. 3 -- Around the left raced the tiniest man on the field in the biggest moment Saturday night. By now the Indianapolis Colts were helpless to stop Darren Sproles as the roar of 68,082 thundered down from the highest banks of Qualcomm Stadium, and the San Diego Chargers running back this AFC first-round playoff game was not supposed to be about had just made the night his own.
As Sproles ran the last of the 22 yards for his overtime touchdown to give San Diego a 23-17 victory over the Colts, his teammates sprinted across the field and fans leaped in their seats, hugged one another and screamed into the night.
"I just saw the grass [of the end zone], and I ran for it," Sproles said, laughing.
Because none of this was supposed to happen.
The Chargers were on the path to becoming one of this football season's great failures. Many believed they had the talent to go to the Super Bowl, but a month ago they stood 4-8 and looked finished. And Sproles, a 5-foot-6 kick returner from Kansas State, was nothing more than a gimmick player on this team. The face of the Chargers, after all, is star running back LaDainian Tomlinson -- he of the commercials and billboards and magazine advertisements.
Then San Diego won four games in a row and managed to sneak into the playoffs as the unimposing champions of the AFC West. And in the playoff game against the Colts who had won nine games in a row, Tomlinson was hurt with a groin injury so severe he couldn't continue after the second quarter. Suddenly everything was about Sproles.
Someday if Sproles disappears into the footnotes of history, people may uncover his 105 rushing and 178 return yards and wonder just who was this little player who took Tomlinson's spot. Sproles finished with 328 all-purpose yards, the third most in a game in league history.
The Chargers players smiled Saturday night. Even when they saw Tomlinson hobbled and limping across the sideline, they knew what they had. They had seen it on their practice fields in the canyon just a few miles up the interstate from their home stadium.
"He was unbelievable all night," said Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers. "It's not surprising to see [Sproles] do this. Every guy in the locker room couldn't be happier for him, just the way he is and the way he practices and the way he works."
"People underestimate him because of his size, but pound-for-pound he's the strongest guy on the team," Rivers said.
Then he nodded.
"That's my guess."
In a way he could have been talking about his entire team. San Diego seemed lost this season when their best defensive player, linebacker Shawne Merriman, the former Maryland star, needed knee surgery and missed the season. So many things seemed to go wrong for the Chargers and yet, because of the ineptitude of their division, they managed to crawl and claw and fight their way into this game.
And then once they reached the playoffs, it appeared they did their best to throw them away. Indianapolis and quarterback Peyton Manning moved at will on the San Diego defense through the first quarter, holding a 10-7 lead that seemed like it could have been a lot more. Even after the Chargers gained second-half momentum and took a 14-10 lead just before halftime, they seemed unable to handle the opportunity.
Manning caught the Chargers changing defenses, early in the third quarter, and called for the ball to be snapped quickly and lobbed a long pass to wide receiver Reggie Wayne for a 72-yard touchdown that humiliated the San Diego players, many of whom still muttered about it among themselves in their victorious locker room.
The score held for most of the second half as the Chargers repeatedly self destructed. Sproles fumbled just before diving into the end zone for what would have been a go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. Rivers threw a long pass into the end zone, intended for wide receiver Chris Chambers, that was intercepted. Two Chargers defensive players dropped sure interceptions deep in Colts territory.
Yet somehow they emerged late in the regulation with the ball inside the 50-yard line. Much of this was the result of Colts mistakes. But as time ran down, the Chargers moved into position for a game-tying field goal that place kicker Nate Kaeding nailed with 33 seconds left.
In overtime, Indianapolis self-destructed. After San Diego won the toss and slowly marched down field, the Colts had two defensive holding penalties and a personal foul that put the ball on the Indianapolis 22-yard line and set up Sproles's final dash to the end zone.
Moments later, the stunned Colts shuffled off the field and up the ramp toward a bleak winter. Lost in the euphoria of Sproles and the unimaginable San Diego victory, was the fact that this may well be the last game for Colts Coach Tony Dungy, who said he will decide in a week if he will retire.
Dungy's players dressed in shocked silence, and Manning finally walked in quietly after a news conference and sullenly started to pull off a gray warmup suit. He ran his hand through his hair and shook his head.
"For me it was disappointing," Manning said. "You'd like to win it in regulation when you have a chance because you know when you go into overtime, that's a risk because you might not get a chance on offense."
The night belonged to the team and the tiny player down the hall. The ones that never should have been here.
"He does get lost back there," San Diego Coach Norv Turner said of Sproles's ability to disappear behind his bigger blockers. "I don't know if that is his intention or not. But that's how it works."