TOUGH IN MANY WAYS

The Colts' opponent this week, the San Diego Chargers, have won three consecutive games to move to within a game of first place in the AFC West. 'They cause a lot of problems,' Colts safety Antoine Bethea says.

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San Diego Chargers Dangerous on Many Fronts, Colts Say
INDIANAPOLIS – Antoine Bethea listed the reasons, and the list was long.

What makes the San Diego Chargers dangerous? Why are the Chargers getting hot late in the season yet again?

Why are they so hard to stop?

Let Bethea count the ways.

"They cause a lot of problems," Bethea said as the Colts (6-4) prepared to play the Chargers (5-5) at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis Sunday at 8:20 p.m.

"Their running game is going right now. They have a lot of deep, down-the-field threats. They have a good tight end."

And that list doesn't even include quarterback Philip Rivers.

It doesn't include the defense, either.

The Chargers, a team that has won four of its last five meetings with the Colts and a team that has finished on a late-season, post-season-qualifying surge each of the last four seasons, are without question getting hot again. And it's not even December yet.

The Chargers, the four-time defending AFC West Champions, started the season 2-5. They were, according to Rivers, making too many mistakes and committing too many turnovers, and although Rivers is on a record-setting pace through 10 games, he said he contributed to that early.

Lately has been a different story.

"This time of year they always seem to be functioning very well at a high level," Caldwell said of the Chargers, who have finished the last four seasons with winning streaks of at least four games. "This year is no different. I think they started off and they won one, lost one back and forth and then they lost three in a row and then they won three in a row.

"They always seem to be able to get their feet up underneath them during the home stretch, and they present a challenge because of the fact that they are just playing so well across the board. They have a very, very effective offense that scores points, and they have a defense that has been able to keep teams out of the end zone. Statistically. they are certainly at the top in almost every category.

"They have a solid kicking game with a great return man in (running back) Darren Sproles. So, they present a real challenge for us."

Since losing to the New England Patriots, 23-20, in San Diego, on October 24, the Chargers have reeled off three consecutive victories to move to within a game of AFC West-leading Kansas City. During that stretch, San Diego has won at home against Tennessee (33-25), at Houston (29-23) and at home against Denver (35-14).

"They do a good job," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "They have a lot of talent across the board, and they do a good job of drafting and getting guys there. Offensively, they have a lot of weapons and they have a great offensive line. Rivers does a great job. Obviously, they have a great tight end.

"Defensively, they have some weapons. When a team is that talented, obviously they present a challenge."

The Chargers not only rank first in the NFL in total offense, they also rank first in total defense. Rivers has passed for 3,177 yards and 23 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He is on a pace to challenge former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino's single-season NFL record of 5,084 yards passing.

"He has a lot of ability," Freeney said. "He makes throws a lot of quarterbacks can't make, or are not willing to make. He thrives off that."

Tight end Antonio Gates, a perennial Pro Bowl selection, missed the last two weeks with a foot injury and his status is uncertain this week, but he already has nine touchdown receptions this season.

Defensively, the Chargers average 3.2 sacks per game, and Pro Bowl linebacker Shaun Phillips has registered nine sacks this season.

"He is a guy that can come off the edge on you with speed," Caldwell said. "He also has power, but they also use him in a couple of these walk-around positions where he kind of moves and comes up the middle and it gives you different wrinkles in terms of their stunts. He's been effective all year and he is a guy that you have to block, because if you turn him loose or don't get him flush, he is going to give you some problems."

One issue for the Chargers early:

They struggled on the road, losing their first four games away from Qualcomm Stadium – 21-14 at Kansas City, 27-20 at Seattle, 35-27 at Oakland and 20-17 at St. Louis. But they beat the Texans on the road, and whereas they committed 18 turnovers in the first seven games, they have just four giveaways during their three-game winning streak.

The result is something familiar for San Diego: a winning streak in the second half of the season to rejoin the playoff chase or clinch a spot in the post-season. They won 11 games to finish last regular season, and won the last four regular-season games in 2008 to clinch the division in the final game of the season.

In 2007, they finished the season on a six-game winning streak and they won their final 10 regular-season games in 2006. They won nine of their final 10 regular-season games in 2004, with the only loss during that stretch a 34-31 overtime loss to the Colts in which Colts quarterback Peyton Manning set the then-NFL record for touchdown passes in a season.

"It is kind of unique," Manning said. "They seem to have it figured out. I do think that's probably the most imant thing. I'm sure nobody wants to start in a hole. They have gotten some guys back.

"I know every quarterback would love to get his left tackle back (Marcus McNeill). I'm sure that makes a big difference to Philip. I think (wide receiver Vincent) Jackson, the receiver is back, so it may be possibly even more explosive on offense, but their defense really has been pretty steady all year, which is impressive because they lost a couple of marquee names in (cornerback Antonio) Cromartie and (linebacker Shawne) Merriman. They really have answered the bell and are playing really well together with whoever is in there. I think their defense has really been solid all year."

Said Bethea, "They've been clicking on all cylinders. We have a challenge coming in this week. We just have to stand up and we have to bounce back."

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