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What If Nate Kaeding Made His Kick in the 2005 AFC Wild Card Game?

San Diego Chargers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

What if you had the power to change the past? What if you could pick one moment in Chargers history, go back in time, and change the outcome? It’s something every sports fan has fantasized about at some point in their fandom and, luckily for you, SB Nation has given us the ability to do just that with their “What if…” week.

Granted, the Chargers have many, many moments we’d all love to change. Most fans would jump back to the infamous Marlon McCree fumble in the 2007 Divisional Playoffs, but that’s too easy. Others might go back to week 17 of the 2005 season, when Marty played Drew Brees in a meaningless week 17 game against the Broncos only to se his shoulder get mangled in the fourth quarter. Like I said, there is no shortage of moments we’d all like to change.

Personally, I’d go back even farther than either of those games. For me, one of the seminal moments in modern Chargers history took place on January 8, 2005. Not ringing a bell? The Chargers hosted a very vanilla New York Jets team in a Wild Card Game played in a violent, driving rain, ultimately losing in overtime when Nate Keating missed a potential game-winning 40-yard field goal attempt.

So, what if….Nate Kaeding had made that field goal?

For starters, a young and exciting football team would have won its first playoff game on the strength of a 7:54, 48-yard game-winning drive. Instead of being branded as the 12-4 football team that couldn’t beat arguably the worst AFC playoff team at home, they would have been seen as a plucky, resourceful young team that fought tooth and nail to pull out a nail-biter in its first taste of post season play. You can’t overstate the confidence boost a team can get from something like that.

In terms of immediate changes, the Bolts would have been headed for a Divisional matchup with the Steelers the following week. It would have been the Chargers 3rd ranked scoring offense and 11th ranked scoring defense against the Steelers #1 scoring defense and 11th ranked scoring offense – Brees and LT vs. Ben and Bettis. At the time, Ben was still managing games rather than winning them and Brees was in he midst of a career year – I cant help but think Ben’s limitations come back to bite the Steelers and the Chargers win a tight one.

Fresh off a tight victory over the vaunted Steelers, the Bolts would have met the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. While I think this matchup probably favors the Chargers on paper because LaDanian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates are healthy and pose serious matchup issues for the Pats, I think playing in the cold in New England against a team looking for its third Super Bowl win in four years gets the best of the baby Bolts in a fun and exciting game.

Now, with the team heading into the offseason, the narratives surrounding the football team, its quarterback and its head coach are entirely different; and that change in narrative completely changes the trajectory for team, QB and coach.

First of all, the Chargers are a young team fresh off a gutsy run to the AFC Title game. They pulled out a nail-biter against the Jets, beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh and gave the Pats a run for their money in New England. That sounds like the perfect jumping-off point for a run in 2005 and there is no home meltdown haunting him all offseason.

Next, we get to Drew Brees. He won the first two playoff games of his career, one of them in Pittsburgh, and had a chance to win it in New England. This serves as job security for Drew. The team signs him to an extension before he ever hits the market. Drew is the unquestioned leader of the team and all thoughts of trading him, or letting him walk, evaporate overnight.

And finally, everything has changed for Marty Schottenheimer. He has just engineered one of the best playoff runs in modern franchise history, including a win in Pittsburgh, and he finds he has Dean’s ear and loyalty. He feels like he’s finally shedding his choke artist reputation in the playoffs and enters the offseason without any demons lurking in the shadows. Dean steps in, forces AJ to sign Marty to an extension and finally puts the AJ vs. Marty drama to rest.

With both Marty and Drew newly extended, the urge to play Drew in the 2005 finale is removed. Marty has job security and isn’t worried about getting a bonus for winning nine games. Meanwhile, Drew is the franchise, so assuming they find themselves 8-8 heading into week 17 in 2005, Marty protects his meal ticket, instead opting to play Rivers in hopes of enhancing his trade value. No shoulder injury for Drew, no yanking of his contract offer while he’s being operated on, and Drew never makes it to New Orleans.

In my opinion, Kaeding’s missed kick more or less defined the Chargers for the better part of the last fifteen seasons. That loss was the beginning of the end for Marty Schottenheimer and Drew Brees in San Diego and ultimately was what gave AJ Smith the influence he needed to push both of them out the door. Had that 40-yard kick split the uprights, everything probably changes for this organization – maybe they even curry enough favor in town to get a stadium deal done.

OR….they roll into Pittsburgh overconfident, lay a giant egg, lick their wounds all the way back to San Diego and absolutely nothing changes at all. AJ and Marty are still at odds, the team refuses to extend Brees, Marty still gets canned after the 2007 playoffs, and we’re sitting here talking about a similar moment in the Pittsburgh game the following week, or the Marlon McCree fumble in 2007. Because, you know…Chargers….