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After-Marty party rolls on for Chargers

Despite injuries, Turner takes San Diego where Schottenheimer could not, to AFC title game, with improbable 28-24 upset of Indianapolis.

January 14, 2008|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- All night long, Billy Volek kept waking with the same nightmarish thought: Oh no, I've missed the team bus.

By morning, the San Diego Chargers reserve quarterback had managed only a few hours' sleep and wasn't getting any more, not with a teammate banging on his hotel room door, telling him: "Let's go."

Volek took it all in stride, a fitting reaction for a journeyman player who later in the day would be called upon to help engineer one of the more unlikely victories in franchise history.

The Chargers' 28-24 upset of the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC divisional playoff game at the RCA Dome on Sunday was constructed of curious elements.

They won because Volek and the team responded after starting quarterback Philip Rivers and star running back LaDainian Tomlinson went down because of knee injuries.

They won because the defense, outgunned in the opening minutes, found ways to stop the defending Super Bowl champions and their quarterback, Peyton Manning, at key junctures.

The win puts San Diego in next weekend's AFC championship game against the undefeated New England Patriots and -- just maybe -- sends a message to critics who considered the team neither tough nor mature enough to get past the wild-card round.

"I have never been around a more gutsy performance," Chargers Coach Norv Turner said. "The adversity, the things that happened during the game, the injuries, our guys never backed down."

The result was a shocker for the favored Colts.

"We weren't quite sharp enough," Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy said. "They just made a few more plays than we did."

That wasn't how the game started. On the opening possession, Manning drove his team effortlessly, finishing with a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dallas Clark. It was the first of three scoring throws for Manning, who completed 33 of 48 passes for 402 yards.

"We were hitting some things, seeing some guys and spreading the ball around a little bit," he said. "It was certainly the way you want to start out the game.

When the Chargers got the ball, their offense had trouble dealing with crowd noise.

They were penalized for delay of game and had to burn timeouts. Rivers started running to the sideline to get the play -- "like in high school" -- because he could not hear.

"It's just one of the things that happen when you're on the road," Turner said.

Eventually the defense settled down and, after Colts receiver Marvin Harrison fumbled, Rivers tied the score with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson in the second quarter.

San Diego's ground game couldn't control the clock but did open up passing lanes, Rivers throwing for 264 yards and three touchdowns, Jackson leading the team with 93 yards receiving.

So, every time Indianapolis made a play, the Chargers responded. And when running back Darren Sproles took a screen pass 56 yards for a touchdown, they had a 21-17 lead going into the fourth quarter.

By that time, however, injuries had become an issue.

Tomlinson was hurt before halftime, when someone fell on his knee. Rivers left the game after the Sproles play -- he landed awkwardly after making the throw. Both players said they hope to return next weekend, but, on this day, they were done.

Which led to the reserves.

Running back Michael Turner, the Chargers' super sub, played well enough to be the game's leading rusher (71 yards, 17 carries). Volek soon followed.

On the winning drive, he moved around the pocket, buying time, finding open receivers. He also got help from the Colts -- when a third-down pass sailed incomplete, they were penalized for a personal foul.

Third downs were another factor Sunday, a good one for the Chargers, who converted at a 60% rate.

"Either we got a penalty or we just didn't get them stopped," Colts linebacker Gary Brackett said.

Given new life, Volek dumped a short pass to tight end Legedu Naanee, who ran 27 yards. Turner followed with three carries down to the one-yard line, setting up the sneak.

Volek called it an "anticlimactic" play. "You don't hand the ball off and [Tomlinson] doesn't jump 20 feet in the air over the pile," he said. "You've got a quarterback trying to keep his feet on the ground."

Simple and effective. But leading by four points with 4:50 remaining, the Chargers still needed defense.

Indianapolis took the ensuing kick and drove quickly downfield, setting up first and goal at the nine-yard line.

A running play gained two yards, followed by two incomplete passes. On fourth down, linebacker Shawne Merriman blitzed from the left edge, forcing Manning to throw too quickly.

The Colts got one more shot with 1:30 remaining but couldn't manage so much as a first down.

"We don't have any tricks, no special defenses we run," linebacker Shaun Phillips said. "We just go out there and play hard."

The victory should ease pressure on San Diego executives criticized for the decision to fire Marty Schottenheimer last winter. He was let go, in part, because of postseason failures.

Now Turner has led the team to consecutive playoff wins and players credit his light touch. As Tomlinson explained: "He just seems to have a sense about him that makes everybody kind of take a deep breath and say, 'You know what? We'll be fine.' "

No one symbolized that vibe better than Volek, who kept his cool all day, even when someone knocked on his door at 8:30 a.m.

Who was the offending teammate? Rivers.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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