SAN DIEGO -- Shawne Merriman was feeling so good Sunday, so invigorated that his San Diego Chargers finally lived up to expectations, that he reached up and did something that might sound superhuman -- even for an All-Pro linebacker.
He snatched an airplane out of the sky.
It was a paper airplane, actually, one that drifted lazily down from the upper deck at Qualcomm Stadium and nearly made it to the field. There, the Chargers' offense was mopping up in a 32-14 victory over the Baltimore Ravens.
"I didn't just want to catch it," Merriman said. "I wanted to catch it with one hand and make it look pretty."
Thousands of spectators roared their approval when he finished with a flourish, taking a bow after grabbing the glider. With the way this tumultuous season has gone for the Chargers (6-5), their fans have learned to take their mirth where they can get it.
At this point last season, the Chargers were 9-2 and running back LaDainian Tomlinson had scored his club-record 20th touchdown. Now they have a one-game lead in the AFC West -- thanks to Denver's 37-34 loss to Chicago -- and are struggling to find their identity heading into the stretch run. Depending on the week, they've had a good defense and lousy offense, or vice versa, or have been as rudderless and unpredictable as a paper plane.
The boos began from San Diego's second play Sunday -- a handoff to Tomlinson for no gain -- and continued in spurts until the Chargers started to pull away late in the second quarter.
"I'd like to say I don't hear it, but I don't like to lie," Coach Norv Turner said. "I just think it's unfortunate because I don't think people understand. That team [Baltimore] is second in the league in rush defense. Certainly there were some things we wanted to do early to feel them out. It's a long game.
"I don't think any game has been won on the first play of the game, and certainly not on the second play of the game."
After some early hiccups, the Chargers put it all together. Philip Rivers threw three touchdown passes and had no interceptions. Antonio Gates caught two of those scoring passes, getting ridiculously open on both. Tomlinson accounted for 122 yards of all-purpose offense. Nate Kaeding kicked four field goals. And the defense limited Baltimore to 210 yards, sacking Kyle Boller four times and twice slapping the football from his grasp.
In short, the Chargers did what they were supposed to do. After all, the Ravens (4-7) came into the game on a four-game losing streak and are now 1-5 on the road. But the mark of a good team is one that wins the games it's supposed to win, so in that sense San Diego took a step forward.
"When this team has a mind-set that not only are we going to win but we're going to punish a team, it's scary," Merriman said. "Because you get it on both sides of the ball. We've got some guys in this locker room that in a sense smelled it early and just went after it."
Merriman set the tone on the Ravens' second possession when he whistled past left tackle Jonathan Ogden and nailed running back Willis McGahee four yards behind the line of scrimmage. The linebacker popped to his feet and did his "Lights Out" dance, wildly toggling the light switch tattooed on his forearm.
It was the first of several big plays by Merriman, whose statistics -- seven tackles, one sack, one forced fumble -- didn't adequately reflect the game he had. He was especially amped to play the Ravens, after linebacker Bart Scott and Ogden had a laugh at his expense after beating the Chargers last season.
After that game, in which Merriman did have one sack but was largely neutralized, linebacker Scott yelled across the locker room to Ogden: "Hey, J.O., tell Merriman to turn the lights back on!"
Asked Sunday whether he thinks Scott and Ogden are laughing now, Merriman said, "No, not really. All their guys took shots at me. It happens."
These days, Baltimore has other concerns. The Ravens are tied with Cincinnati in the division cellar, and will be four games out of first if Pittsburgh beats winless Miami tonight.
Coach Brian Billick signed a new four-year contract before last season and told the Baltimore Sun before Sunday's game that he's confident he's coming back next season. Asked after the game what he needs to do to fix what ails the Ravens, he said: "Just keep working. I'm open to any suggestions."
Likewise, the season has been anything but a smooth ride for the Chargers. They won their opener, lost three in a row, won three in a row, and since the start of this month have gone loss, win, loss, win.
Gates, for one, sees a bright spot in that.
"It's definitely a positive because it humbles us and makes us understand that in order to be successful we have to play every down, every quarter, every play," he said. "There's nothing guaranteed in this league.
"We've had to learn it the hard way."