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NFL PLAYOFFS | WILD-CARD ROUND

Chargers hit next level

With Tomlinson struggling, Rivers shows he has arm enough to lift San Diego over Tennessee, 17-6, for the team's first playoff victory since 1994 season.

January 07, 2008|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- Halfway through a dismal Sunday afternoon, gray and soggy, the Chargers were on their way to another playoff loss.

Their running game couldn't get started. The passing game wasn't much better.

This team that had not won a postseason game in more than a decade could only look to the scoreboard, which showed them trailing the Tennessee Titans by a mere six points at halftime.

"Hey guys, we score one time and we're in the lead," quarterback Philip Rivers recalled saying in the locker room. "So let's not panic."

It was good advice, and Rivers backed it up with a string of clutch plays in the second half, leading his team to a 17-6 victory over Tennessee in an AFC wild-card playoff game at Qualcomm Stadium.

The victory sends San Diego to play defending champion Indianapolis next week, but any thoughts of the challenge ahead were trumped -- at least temporarily -- by sheer relief. The Chargers had their first playoff victory since the 1994 season.

Gone were painful playoff memories of last season's come-from-ahead loss to New England. Gone were recollections of an overtime loss to New York in 2005.

They were banished by a tough defense and a young quarterback who stepped up when his main weapon, running back LaDainian Tomlinson, struggled. Rivers responded by completing 19 of 30 for 292 yards and the winning touchdown.

"Philip made the plays with his arm," Tennessee Coach Jeff Fisher said, calling Rivers' performance "the difference in the game."

The Chargers needed him to step up.

The Titans and their fifth-ranked defense kept extra men close to the line of scrimmage, linebackers hiding behind the front four, waiting to pounce on Tomlinson.

The idea was to force the game into Rivers' hands.

"I think that's been the strategy for the 34 games since I've been here," the quarterback quipped. "And I don't think that strategy is going to change as long as we have [Tomlinson] back there."

It worked for much of the day, Tomlinson finishing with 42 yards in 21 arduous carries. Through the first two quarters, the rest of the offense could not pick up the slack.

Penalties hindered some drives. Other times, Rivers either missed the mark or was hurried into poor throws. In the second quarter, he took a shot downfield and had a pass intercepted in the end zone.

Meanwhile, the Titans patched together an offense despite injuries to the line and receiving corps. LenDale White, the game's leading rusher with 19 carries for 69 yards, had some success. Vince Young -- hobbled by a leg injury -- passed well enough to put his team in scoring position.

"I just played the game and took what the defense gave me," Young said.

But the Titans, who have struggled in the red zone this season, fumbled away one chance and settled for a pair of Rob Bironas field goals.

"Obviously we missed opportunities to win," Fisher said.

That 6-0 score at halftime took some of the pressure off the Chargers.

Less than a year ago, the franchise fired its coach, Marty Schottenheimer, in part because of postseason struggles. When the team started 1-3 under his replacement, Norv Turner, fans started to chant "Marty" from the stands.

"Norv was brought here in an odd situation," Tomlinson said. "Get us back to the playoffs and win a game in the playoffs or be a failure."

At halftime on Sunday, the new coach stayed cool. He did not panic with star tight end Antonio Gates sidelined by a sprained left toe. He stayed confident in his quarterback.

Rivers came out hot in the second half, completing five of six passes on San Diego's first possession, including a pair of 19-yard throws to Chris Chambers. Nate Kaeding finished the drive with a 20-yard field goal that cut the gap to 6-3.

On the Chargers' next possession, Rivers was four for four, connecting with Vincent Jackson on a 25-yard touchdown pass play for a 10-6 lead.

Tennessee answered with a drive of its own, but when Bironas missed a 38-yard field-goal attempt, the momentum had swung firmly in San Diego's direction.

Suddenly, Tomlinson found an opening to run for a first down. Rivers missed a couple of throws, then spotted Chambers alone behind the Tennessee secondary. The 39-yard completion set up Tomlinson's one big moment.

All day long, the running back had kept his composure while struggling to gain yards, explaining later: "When you get in the playoffs, you can't expect to run up and down the field on people."

With San Diego facing fourth and goal at the one-yard line, Tomlinson saw his chance.

"I told Norv I was going to jump, so let's do a play straight at them," he said. "I told the linemen to get under them . . . and I'll jump over the top."

He did just that, launching himself over the pile for perhaps the most important yard of his career, a touchdown that secured the win.

The players tried not to make a big deal of it, saying that by this morning they would be focused on Peyton Manning and the Colts. But there was no mistaking what this victory meant.

"This was the game to get us over the hump," Gates said. "This game was huge for us."

david.wharton@latimes.com

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