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Inside the NFL

Bolts from the blue

Chargers have made it through the bad times and are surging. Now they need to figure out how to win in playoffs.

December 28, 2007|Sam Farmer | ON THE NFL

SAN DIEGO -- Thumb through the pages of the San Diego Chargers' 2007 season, a book still being written, and marvel at all the setbacks and downturns.

There was the 1-3 start . . .

The thrashing at New England . . .

The boos raining from the upper reaches of Qualcomm Stadium and the chants of "Mar-ty! Mar-ty!" . . .

LaDainian Tomlinson's cold-shouldered brush-offs of quarterback Philip Rivers and Coach Norv Turner . . .

The humiliating defeat at Minnesota, when Adrian Peterson trampled them to the tune of 296 yards rushing and three touchdowns . . .

Now put down the book and ponder this: In light of all that -- maybe because of it -- the Chargers could be the most dangerous team in football.

That's not to say they're headed to the Super Bowl. They still have to prove they can win one playoff game, let alone three. But, with one regular-season game to go, Turner's team finds itself in prime position to do damage in January.

So was firing former coach Marty Schottenheimer the right thing to do?

We'll know in nine days.

Is Turner truly better suited to be a coordinator than the final decision maker?

Now's his chance to reshape his legacy.

If the Chargers beat Oakland in Sunday's finale, they will be the AFC's third-seeded playoff team and will play host to either Tennessee or Cleveland in a first-round game.

The seeding issue is big. If the Chargers win as the third-seeded team, they will play a divisional game at Indianapolis with the confidence of knowing they've already beaten the Colts this season -- albeit narrowly. But if they win as the fourth-seeded team, they would next have to travel to Foxborough to face the hottest team in football.

The dicey assumption in all of this is the Chargers win a playoff game in the first place, something they haven't done since 1994. There are no givens in the NFL, and especially in San Diego, where last season's team folded like a chaise longue at the first whiff of playoff pressure.

But this season's team has been through the fires -- literally and figuratively -- and could have fractured at so many turns.

Yet it didn't, and now those bad experiences are more like healed-over battle wounds.

"If you have outstanding football players with character, and things go bad, this is where their finest hour comes," Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith said Thursday, sitting in his sprawling office at team headquarters.

"The most important thing is the last month of the season, in particular, the last three games. Because that's where your championship run takes place."

Rivers is among the Chargers who say this team is better and more prepared than it was a year ago, when San Diego was an NFL-best 14-2 and a pair of three-point losses removed from a perfect season.

Down the stretch last season, Rivers said, "we were struggling a little bit in the offense. We were winning games, but it wasn't smooth."

Lately, the opposite is true. In his last three home games, Rivers has completed 69.1% of his passes with five touchdowns and no interceptions, and he has been sacked only once.

Tomlinson has rushed for more than 100 yards in all four games this month, scoring six touchdowns and averaging 6.6 yards a carry.

And San Diego's defense has been spectacular over the last five games, collecting 19 sacks, 17 takeaways and yielding only 11.6 points a game.

Could all of those statistics turn out to be meaningless? Of course. Again, the Chargers haven't won a playoff game in 13 years. But those numbers could also point to the team peaking at the right time, getting traction and gathering momentum when it really counts.

San Diego won the AFC West in 2004 and lost at home by three points to the New York Jets. Then came last season's three-point home loss to the Patriots.

"We're zero and two," Smith said. "We're trying to figure out how to win a world championship. The only way to do that is you've got to win your first game and move on to the second.

"We've just got to figure out how to win a game."

And in nine days, we'll all know if they have.

--

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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