SAN DIEGO — A league that could use a few history lessons produced one Sunday on a messy afternoon when men were men, and Colts were Colts.
With horseshoes on their helmets, black streaks under their eyes and thick black shoes hugging their ankles, a team of overachievers entered an angry arena against a defending champion.
Like Baltimore, like Indianapolis. Finally. The Colts knocked these defending NFL champions into next year with a 35-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers in an AFC first-round playoff game.
Jim Harbaugh will never be Johnny Unitas, Sean Dawkins is no John Mackey, and Zack Crockett is no Don Nottingham.
In fact, Zack Crockett was not even Zack Crockett before Sunday, with one professional carry for no yards.
But the Colts won a playoff game for the first time in 24 years thanks to Harbaugh's two touchdown passes, Dawkins' go-ahead touchdown catch, and 147 rushing yards with two scores for Crockett, who afterward put the day in perspective.
"I've never even heard of any of those old Colts," he said, even though he imitated some of them with scoring runs of 33 and 66 yards. "I wasn't even born back then."
Crockett, a second-string rookie, had no idea that in their last playoff victory, on Dec. 26, 1971, the Baltimore Colts defeated their opponents, 20-3, thanks to two touchdowns by a backup running back.
Guy by the name of Nottingham.
The victims? The Cleveland Browns, who have since moved to you-know-where.
The Colts understandably had little need for history on a day they made Indianapolis truly proud for the first time since they moved there in 1984.
"When I first came here, I thought Indianapolis was in New Jersey," said defensive tackle Tony Siragusa. "We've come a long way since then."
Considerably further after shaking off three deficits and the roar of 61,182 mostly hostile fans at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
The Colts won even though:
--Eleven consecutive road teams in the first round of the AFC playoffs had lost.
--Two weeks ago, at home against the Chargers, they lost.
--Running back Marshall Faulk left the game after only two plays because of a sore knee.
"Lately we've been hearing so much about how we're just the same old Colts," Harbaugh said. "We wanted to make a statement today. Hey, we're not that bad anymore."
And the Chargers, despite good intentions and last gasps, were not that good. After winning five consecutive games at the end of the season with inspired play to keep alive their hopes of returning to the Super Bowl, they finally snapped out of it.
They committed four turnovers, dropped four passes, and ruined touchdown drives of 18 and 12 plays by allowing the Colts to score within minutes of each.
"We went out there and fell on our face," linebacker Junior Seau said.
A six-yard scoring pass from Stan Humphries to Alfred Pupunu gave the Chargers a 10-7 lead with 5:48 left in the second quarter . . . but Crockett ran 33 yards untouched three minutes later to give the Colts the lead at halftime.
Then after Shawn Jefferson caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Humphries while standing alone in the back of the end zone with 4:20 left in the third quarter--giving the Chargers another lead--they blew it again.
The counter punch occurred less than four minutes later. The Colt hero was an angry Dawkins, who had only one catch and was pleading for the ball.
In the huddle on the Charger 42-yard line, Harbaugh looked at Dawkins and told him to "Go hunt."
Meaning, hunt rookie cornerback Terrance Shaw until he trapped him deep. Dawkins did just that, outrunning Shaw at the 10-yard line, making a lunging catch at the two-yard line and sliding into the end zone to give the Colts a lead they never lost.
"I'm glad the season is over," Charger defensive end Rueben Davis said.
The Colts' season in the spotlight is just beginning.
They will travel to Kansas City this weekend, where the Chiefs are unbeaten in eight games this season, and where the Colts haven't played since 1985 or won since 1980.
Don't tell them they don't have a chance. They are having too much fun to listen.
After the final gun Sunday, linebacker Stephen Grant knelt at midfield in both thanksgiving and exhaustion. Harbaugh started talking to the media and friends.
Coach Ted Marchibroda never lost a dazed smile as he was shuttled from one national television appearance to another. The closest he had come to national TV before Sunday was his living room.
"It's like the world is catching on to this thing," he said, shaking his head.
As if the story of former bench warmer Harbaugh is not enough, now the Colts can also offer Crockett, who on Sunday gained more than one-fourth of his total collegiate yardage at Florida State, where he blocked and watched.
The Colts didn't even want him to play Sunday. But with Faulk reinjuring his knee, and with fullback Roosevelt Potts out for the season because of another knee injury, and with backup running back Lamont Warren not strong enough to duel with the massive Charger defensive line . . .
"God blessed me today," Crockett said. "It was amazing."
He carried the ball only 13 times. But he averaged 11.3 yards while juking safeties and outrunning cornerbacks.
The Chargers were stunned--"You'd figure with Marshall Faulk out of the game, the running attack would be no factor," Davis said.
But not as stunned as the Colts--"The guy came out of nowhere," Dawkins said. "He looked like our own Natrone Means."
Who, by the way, gained 11 yards on six carries for the Chargers during a premature attempt to return from his groin injury.
"It's worked that way for us this year," Harbaugh said. "At different times, guys have come in and had the game of their lives."
This week, Crockett.
Next week, Bulaich?