SAN DIEGO — This team with no future, and a skeptical present, has been welcomed back into its past.
Against the AFC's top-ranked defense, the San Diego Chargers scored 13 points in the game's final 7:24 Sunday to come from a 10-point deficit and defeat the Cleveland Browns, 27-24, in overtime.
Charger defensive back Vencie Glenn intercepted Bernie Kosar's pass at the Brown 45-yard line on the third play of overtime and returned it 20 yards. Two plays later, Vince Abbott kicked a 33-yard field goal.
And, suddenly, it was the early 1980s again. It was the three straight first-place finishes, the playoffs, winning that didn't feel like strikeball winning; winning that felt real.
Suddenly, it was Glenn dancing around the middle of the San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium field, waving his taped arm above his head. It was 55,381 fans waving back.
It was 36-year-old Dan Fouts standing at the middle of the field clapping like a little boy, actually smiling and shaking his fists. It was 55,381 fans shaking their fists back.
It was Coach Al Saunders, impeccably starched and coiffed, walking in the locker room with a splotch of blood on his shirt.
"How many have we won?" asked Saunders, making one wonder if that was his blood. "Six straight?"
Good guess. After a season-opening loss to Kansas City, and thanks in part to three wins by a replacement team, the Chargers are 6-1. It is their best start in 26 years, since 1961, their first year in San Diego, although Fouts is using a different measure.
"This is the best team we've had since the 1982 playoffs," Fouts said, noting the last time the Chargers even finished above fourth place. "I see people maturing and playing at a notch where they haven't played before. We're getting to the point where we have more weapons than we've ever had."
Sunday's winning weapon was a 33-yard field goal by Abbott just 2:16 into the overtime.
The most exciting weapon was Fouts, who took the team on two fourth-period drives to tie it.
On one drive he was 7 for 8 for 75 yards, ending with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Lionel James to close the gap to 24-21 with 5:08 left. On the second drive, he completed 2 passes for 24 yards, setting up Abbott's 20-yard tying field goal with 1:50 left.
But the game's lethal weapon, and don't try to hide your surprise here, was the Charger defense.
Three times, the Browns had the ball late in the game, trying first to protect their 24-21 lead, and then trying to win the game after winning the overtime coin flip. But all three times they were stopped.
The most spectacular came on the third play of overtime, when Glenn found himself in front of a lob from Kosar that sailed over the head of Earnest Byner, who was busy trying to protect his head from the wrath of linebacker Billy Ray Smith.
"The coach just told me to stay in the middle of the field, Kosar threw it up, I just waited for it," Glenn said.
Said Kosar: "I should have thrown it away."
One series earlier, the Browns were stopped at midfield by Glenn and fellow safety Martin Bayless on a surprise blitz that sacked Kosar.
"You could tell Bernie was shook up by then," said defensive end Joe Phillips. "He was standing there over the center, and was interrupting his cadence with, 'They're coming, they're coming!' I've never heard that before."
Said Kosar: "I saw the blitz coming, I tried to get into the count quicker, but I still wasn't quick enough."
And the series before that, the Browns were stopped at their 19, setting up the game-tying Charger drive, because Phillips chased Kosar around the backfield for five seconds before Kosar finally dropped, avoiding a hit from Phillips and Terry Unrein, who had just arrived.
"Bernie had to fall down, or he would have died," Phillips said. "For his sake, I'm glad he fell. Terry and I would have crushed him."
From the start, it was a crusher for the defending AFC Central champion Browns. Fifty seconds into the game, Kosar threw the ball across the middle into the hands of ex-Brown Chip Banks. On the second play, against the team that just last spring traded him, Banks made the interception and returned it 15 yards to the Cleveland 20.
"Yes, that was very, very nice," said Banks, who also recovered a fumble. "This was my best game so far, but I think I have many, many more in me."