INDIANAPOLIS — They skipped and strutted and two-stepped through the tunnel toward the locker room Sunday. In the stands behind them were 60,000 people . . . and silence. Ahead of them, well, they can't look that far just now, what with the glaze in their eyes.
"Where's all the sound, I can't hear a sound!" said Billy Ray Smith, laughing, cupping his helmet to his ear. "Where was everybody out there?"
The San Diego Chargers recovered an Eric Dickerson fumble in their end zone with 4:06 left in a tie game, drove 59 yards the other way, and Vince Abbott kicked a 39-yard field goal with 15 seconds left to defeat the Indianapolis Colts, 16-13.
Quarterback Dan Fouts: "I must say that this ending was unbelievable."
The Chargers are 7-1 and lead the AFC West with 7 games remaining. This time last year they were 1-7 and a couple of hours from firing their coach.
"We have kind of flipped it around a little bit," said Coach Al Saunders, who took that 1-7 team last year and has since gone 10-6.
Sort of like they flipped around Dickerson in a defensive play that mirrored the season.
In front of a record crowd of 60,459 at the Hoosier Dome, the Chargers had been forced to come back from a 13-0 first-half deficit. They had tied the game with 12:47 left on a five-yard wobbly pass from Fouts to Lionel James, just as James was falling over his feet in the end zone.
With 8:58 remaining, the Colts started a drive that took them from their 36 to the Charger 8. It was first and goal.
Dickerson, making his Colts' home debut, had already carried the ball 34 times. He had been on the field for 15 plays in the second half, and on 13 of those the ball was either handed to him or passed toward him. First and goal and absolutely no secret.
He took a handoff from quarterback Jack Trudeau. He was high-stepping across the goal line but was grabbed from behind by linebacker Smith. Several other Chargers converged. The ball popped out.
Linebacker Mike Humiston fell on it in the end zone. The Chargers took the ball on the 20, and 11 plays later the game was over.
"I thought I had a good grip on it," Dickerson said.
But it wasn't just that hit that caused the former Ram running back, traded to the Colts two weeks ago, to lose the ball and the game. "I'd like to think it was a cumulative thing," Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Lynn said. "We had been pounding on him the whole day, reaching in on him the whole day."
By halftime, Dickerson had 103 yards in 24 carries, and the defense decided to dedicate itself to making Dickerson feel something, anything.
In the second half, he gained just 35 yards in 11 carries. That's not counting the half-carry off the field after one particularly vicious hit by safety Martin Bayless.
"There were so many of us hitting him, we knew it was eventually coming," said defensive tackle Joe Phillips. "One time Humiston hit him high, and I hit him low, and I heard him go, 'Uggghhh.' I knew he was was wearing down."
After the fumble, Fouts and the offense took over.
The drive started with two three-yard runs by Curtis Adams. It looked like another punt and a possible overtime until, on third and four, Fouts hit tight end Kellen Winslow over the middle for 11 yards.
From there, it was simply Fouts, like always. On a second and six from the Charger 41, Fouts pump-faked once, ducked a rusher's swipe, pump-faked again, and then hit Wes Chandler for 18 yards across the middle.
Two plays later, he completed an 11-yard pass to Rod Bernstine to the Colts 29. Three running plays later, Abbott completed a 3-for-3 day with the game-winner.
Last week, the Chargers fell behind the Cleveland Browns, 24-14, before rallying to win, 27-24, in overtime.
Against the Colts, they were awful in the first half and used good defense to save themselves in the second half.
Which brings up a fourth-and-one stand on the Colt 40 with 6:02 left in the third quarter. What, the Colts would get that risky in their own territory? Yes, and while protecting a 13-3 lead, no less.
With the crowd chanting "Go for it," the Colts lined up to punt. Strangely, the Chargers left their regular defense in the game. Sure enough, punter Rohn Stark suddenly ran up to the line of scrimmage, Blair Kiel moved from behind a tackle to behind the center, the ball was snapped to Kiel, he handed it to Albert Bentley and . . . nothing. Chip Banks stuffed Bentley at the line of scrimmage, the Chargers took over, and six plays later Abbott had another field goal to make it 13-6.
"I was surprised they went for it," Charger safety Gill Byrd said. "There was a lot of time left in the game, their defense was going well, it was a gutsy call."
Charger special teams coach Wayne Sevier wasn't surprised. That's why the punt defense never took the field.
"Earlier in the game during a third-down play, I saw Kiel on the sidelines, running around looking for his helmet," Sevier explained. "He doesn't normally play on their punt teams, so even though that particular time they got a first down and didn't punt, I knew Kiel would be involved in a future punt. So we left our regular guys out there. Good thing. If we didn't, they would have probably gotten the first down."