This game made the list for much the same reasons that #5 did. The Chargers had not won a playoff game since the 1994 AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh, which was 13 year post-season victory drought (and may that streak never again be threatened). This was the second win for the team in the 2007 playoffs, having beaten the Titans in the Wild Card game the previous week, but this win was also the high water mark for the powerhouse Charger teams in the 2000’s. (A somewhat more dubious effect is that at the time, the win seemed to justify AJ Smith’s replacement of Marty Schottenheimer after the 14-2 2006 season with Norv Turner.)
Another factor is that this was an incredible team win, with the Bolts needing a comeback effort from back-up QB Billy Volek against the league’s best defense to win this road playoff game. Finally, this game was one of those improbable Bolts wins when nobody gave them a chance; the Colts were favored by 11 points and the Chargers limped into the game depleted and banged up after the Wild Card game against the Titans.
The Chargers had started the season 5-5 and did not seem to be adjusting to the new coaching staff well at all. The team then ripped off 6 straight wins to finish the season at 11-5 and AFC West Champions. This game looked on paper to be a Colts blowout in the making; the Tony Dungy coached Colts had the league’s best scoring defense and 3rd best scoring offense. They were healthy and rested after getting the 1st round bye as the #2 playoff seed. The Chargers All-Pro Tight End (Antonio Gates) was hobbled from a toe injury on a cheap shot in the prior week’s game. Lorenzo Neal, the starting FB was out with a neck injury. And the best defensive player on the Chargers roster, Shawne Merriman, was playing on a torn up right knee, also injured on a cheap shot by the Titans in the wild card game.
From start to finish, this was intense, hard hitting playoff football at its finest. The Chargers, having beaten the Colts soundly in a Sunday Night Football game earlier that season, were confident and aggressive against the reigning Super Bowl Champions. The game looked more like an alley fight in the first half than the wide open offensive show that many were expecting. Things started to look even more adverse for the Chargers when LaDainian Tomlinson went out early with a severely bruised knee. The Colts went into half time with a hard earned 14-10 lead in a game that was showcasing the defenses for both teams.
In the second half, both offenses made adjustments and the game opened up, with the lead changing 5 times in the final two quarters. While back-up RB Michael Turner did not have an impressive day, his pounding style began to wear down the Colts defense. This opened things up for Rivers, who threw his second of three TD passes to Chris Chambers early in the 3rd to give the bolts their first lead. Manning answered with a long drive, capped by a 9 yard pass for a score to Reggie Wayne.
3rd down RB Darren Sproles had the biggest play of the day as time expired in the 3rd quarter, a 56 yard lightning fast dash down the left sideline on a swing pass. Sproles’ TD gave the Chargers a 21-17 lead at the end of the 3rd quarter. This play was also costly for the Chargers; QB Philip Rivers was knocked out of the game with a partially torn MCL. In the beginning of the 4th quarter, Manning answered, this time with his own big play, a 55 yard bomb to Anthony Gonzalez, to retake the lead 24-21 with 10 minutes to go in the 4th quarter.
Down 3 points, it would be up to Billy Volek to mount a comeback if the Chargers were to win. The value of having a capable veteran back-up QB on an NFL roster was never more clearly demonstrated than on that drive halfway through the 4th quarter on that Sunday in Indianapolis. Volek went 3-4 with 48 yards and eventually scored the go-ahead TD with 4:50 seconds left in the game on a QB sneak from the 1. This was San Diego’s only rushing TD for the game. The Chargers were able to beat the Colts with back-up players, injured players, and an opportunistic defense that got 3 turnovers. But the real story od this game was the performance of the team's back-ups:
Darren Sproles and Billy Volek at Indianapolis (via Joel Price)
While a lot of us watching that day were fearful that the Bolts had left too much on the clock for Manning, the defense was able to preserve the 4 point lead and close out the game. For the 4th time since joining the NFL in 1970, the Chargers were going to the AFC Championship Game. (To see more highlights, this link may work for you better than it did for me.)
How It Played Out
Waiting for the Chargers in the Conference Title game was the 17-0 New England Patriots team that had beaten the heavily favored Chargers the year before in San Diego during the divisional round. The Chargers 3 best offensive players, Rivers, Tomlinson, and Gates were all injured and "questionable" going into the game. The defense’s best player, Shawne Merriman, was clearly ailing. LT tried to go, but he was ineffective and took himself out of the game early.
Rivers was able to play the entire game, but struggled. The defense did play well, getting 3 turnovers and limiting the league’s best offense, averaging 37 points a game, to 21 points. Unfortunately, the offense was not able to score any TD’s as the Chargers put a paltry 12 points on the scoreboard with 4 field goals. The Patriots went on the Super Bowl, where they were beaten by the NY Giants, leaving the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only NFL team in the post-merger era to have a perfect season.