A Capsule Look at this Week's Colts Opponent, the San Diego Chargers
Synopsis: The Colts, a playoff team the past seven seasons, are entering the postseason as one of the NFL's hottest teams.
Their first-round opponent is, too.
The San Diego Chargers, who played in the AFC Championship Game a year ago and who were selected by many before the season to play in the Super Bowl, overcame a 4-8 start with victories in their final four games, clinching a fourth AFC West title in five seasons with a 52-21 victory over the Denver Broncos Sunday night.
The Colts (12-4) will play the Chargers (8-8) in an AFC Wild Card Playoff game at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Cal., Saturday at 8 p.m.
"I think that once you get into the playoffs it doesn't matter how you got into them," Chargers guard Kris Dielman told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "We're on a good roll. We're ending the season on a good note. Now it's time to go into the postseason and make a good run."
The victory over the Broncos capped a remarkable late-season run for San Diego, which slipped to 4-8 during a three-game losing streak that included a 23-20 loss to the Colts in San Diego on November 23.
The Chargers lost to three playoff games during the stretch – they also lost 11-10 at Pittsburgh and 22-16 at home to Atlanta – to slip three games behind Denver.
But Denver lost two consecutive games and San Diego won at home against Oakland (34-7), at Kansas City (22-21) and at Tampa Bay (41-24) to set up a home game against the Broncos in the regular-season finale to decide the AFC West title.
The Chargers became the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs after starting the season 4-8, and the first NFL team to win a division after trailing by three games with three remaining. They also are the first team since the 1985 Cleveland Browns to win a division with an 8-8 record.
Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, slowed by a toe injury early in the season, averaged 3.8 yards a carry this season – more than a half a yard below his career average – but he rushed for more than 90 yards in three of the last four games.
With the running game ranked 20th, quarterback Philip Rivers finished the season as the NFL's top-rated passer, throwing for 34 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His 34 touchdowns broke the franchise record of 33 set by Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts in 1981.
The Chargers' defense, which played all but one game this season without Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman, intercepted 15 passes this season after intercepting 30 last season. Their sacks total also dropped from 42 last season to 28 this season.
A key to the Chargers' late-season run? A return to their form from last season. A year ago, the Chargers led the NFL in turnover margin at plus-24, forcing 48 turnovers and committing 24. Through 10 games this season, the Chargers were 4-6 and had a minus-5 margin.
In the last four games of the season, they had forced 10 turnovers and committed four, finishing the season plus-4 – seventh in the AFC.
The Colts and Chargers have played five times in Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy's six previous seasons, with San Diego winning three of the last four meetings – in the 2005 and 2007 regular seasons, and in an AFC Divisional Playoff in Indianapolis this past January.
The Chargers beat the Colts, 23-21, in San Diego last November, a game the Colts trailed 23-0 and had a chance to win before kicker Adam Vinatieri missed a 29-yard field goal in the final two minutes. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning threw a career-high six interceptions before leading a second-half rally.
San Diego then rallied from deficits of 7-0, 10-7, 17-14 and 24-21 to beat the Colts, 28-24, in the playoffs last season.
2008 Record: 8-8, AFC West Champions.
Head Coach: Norv Turner, second season as Chargers Head Coach (19-13, 20-14 including postseason) and 11th season as an NFL Head Coach (77-95-1, 80-97-1 including postseason).
Last game: Needing a victory to complete an improbable late-season run to the AFC West title, the Chargers dominated the Denver Broncos Sunday night, winning 52-21 in San Diego to clinch their third consecutive division title. The Chargers produced a season-high 491 yards offense, scoring on their first four possessions. They also set a franchise record with 289 yards rushing. Denver never got closer than 11 points in the second half.
2008 NFL Rankings: Offense – Overall, 11th (349.0 yards per game); Rushing, 20th (107.9 ypg); Passing, 7th (241.1 ypg); Defense – Overall, 25th (349.9 yards per game); Rushing, 11th (102.6 ypg); Passing, 32nd (247.4 ypg).
2008 Leading Passer: Philip Rivers (312-478 completions, 4,009 yards, 65.3 pct., 34 TD, 11 INT, 105.5 rating).
2008 Leading Rusher(s): LaDainian Tomlinson (292 carries, 1,110 yards, 11 TD); Darren Sproles (61 carries, 330 yards, 1 TD).
2008 Leading Receiver(s): Antonio Gates (60 receptions, 704 yards, 8 TD); Vincent Jackson (59 receptions, 1,098 yards, 7 TD); LaDainian Tomlinson (52 receptions, 426 yards, 1 TD); Chris Chambers (33 receptions, 462 yards, 5 TD); Darren Sproles (29 receptions, 342 yards, 5 TD).
2008 Leading Sacker(s): Shaun Phillips (7.5); Jyles Tucker (5.5).
2008 Turnover Breakdown: Plus-4 (24 forced, 20 committed).
First-round draft choice: Antoine Cason, cornerback. With the 27th overall selection in the 2008 NFL Draft, the Chargers selected Cason, a cornerback from the University of Arizona.
Cason (6-feet, 190 pounds) has played in all 16 games, starting three games in November and December. He intercepted two passes and defensed seven, returning an interception 59 yards for a touchdown in a 41-24 victory over Tampa Bay in the second-to-last game of the season.
Cason had 15 interceptions at Arizona and was named the Thorpe Award winner for the nation's top defensive back as a senior.
Key free agents acquired: L.J. Shelton (Miami), OT; Derek Smith (San Francisco), LB.
Key free agents lost: Drayton Florence (Jacksonville), CB; Michael Turner (Atlanta), RB.
2008 Review: The Chargers, a season after winning the AFC West, struggled at times early this season, slipping to 4-8 before a late-season surge moved them past the Broncos into the postseason.
They began the season with a 26-24 loss at home to Carolina, losing when Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dante Rosario as time expired, and after a 39-38 loss at Denver, they beat the New York Jets at home and Oakland on the road to even their record.
They then lost at Miami before a 30-10 victory over New England, but a 23-14 loss at Buffalo and a 37-32 loss to New Orleans in London pushed them to 3-5 entering a Week 9 bye.
They held off a late rally to beat Kansas City at home before losing a late lead at Pittsburgh in mid-November. The loss to the Steelers was part of a three-game November losing streak that moved them four games under .500 and three games behind the Broncos entering December.
The Chargers opened December with a 34-7 victory over the Raiders, then beat the Chiefs, 22-21, in Kansas City before beating Tampa Bay on the road, 41-24. They clinched the AFC West with a 31-point victory over Denver Sunday night.
Last time in Playoffs: 2007.
Last time in Super Bowl: 1994.
Super Bowl Championships: None.
2008 Pro Bowl Selections: Antonio Gates, TE; Kris Dielman, OG.
Quotable I: "This is obviously history, the way we trailed the division and how we've now won it. We know the expectations we set out with and how high they were at the start of the year. All we've done is re-open some of those goals and some of those expectations now that we've got ourselves into January."
--- Chargers Quarterback Philip Rivers
Quotable II: "We're on a good roll. We're ending the season on a good note. Now it's time to go into the postseason and make a good run."
--- Chargers Guard Kris Dielman