He's the guy who goes on flipping through his magazine when the airplane hits heavy turbulence, the dude who casually takes cover in a doorway when the earthquake strikes. For nearly a year now we've been hearing that Drew Brees, the San Diego Chargers' 23-year-old quarterback, is preternaturally calm in times of crisis, and on Sunday the theory was put to its sternest test. With 2:24 left in the Chargers' AFC West showdown against the Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego trailed by six points. Brees entered the huddle with no timeouts remaining and 71 yards standing between him and NFL adulthood.
"Let's get it done, right now," he told his teammates, flashing a sly grin. "You know we're going to win this game."
Never mind that Brees had already thrown two ugly interceptions, part of a giveaway-fest that nearly gave first-year Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer a migraine. The kid was hell-bent for a happy ending, and when he spoke in the huddle, the other 10 men there got almost as excited as the 58,995 fans at Qualcomm Stadium. Yeah, Drew, we're with you! Come on, baby, do your thing!
"We just felt it," said running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who finished with 78 yards rushing and another 78 receiving. "He was cool. Cool Brees."
Seven plays later, when Brees connected with rookie wideout Reche Caldwell on a two-yard touchdown pass with 14 seconds to go, the winds of change had officially swept through this battered football town. Blown away by San Diego's 35-34 victory were the haunting images of Ryan Leaf and one of the longest Super Bowl hangovers in history. When the dust had settled, the Chargers (5-1) stood alone atop football's toughest division, with another monster clash looming in Oakland this Sunday against the 4-1 Raiders.
In San Diego the time has come to start anew with Drew. Call it Revolution Number 9. "I love our belief in one another," Brees said after beating the Chiefs (3-3). "When the offense falters, the defense is there to pick us up, and vice versa. We're doing this together, and we're so confident that we can find a way to win."
The game ended with linebacker Donnie Edwards's interception of Kansas City quarterback Trent Green's Hail Mary. The jubilant Chargers rushed onto the field, and the stadium rocked as it seldom has in the past seven years. Chiefs linebacker Lew Bush, who played for San Diego from 1993 through '99 (including the team's AFC tide season, '94), looked up in wonder and said, "This reminds me of the Super Bowl year. They've got it rolling like that."
If the comparison seems a little extreme—remember, the previous Sunday the Chargers had been crushed 26-9 in Denver by the Broncos—forgive San Diego fans for daring to dream. A season certainly seems magical when you win a game despite five turnovers, a blocked punt that led to a first-quarter touchdown, and a rash of injuries to the defense, most notably to All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, who missed most of the second half with a left foot injury.
Thanks to a little luck (a Kansas City timeout with 19 seconds left saved San Diego from a certain delay-of-game penalty) and plenty of pluck, the Chargers survived their mistakes. "We shot ourselves in the foot so many times," said All-Pro defensive end Marcellus Wiley, who missed the game with a groin injury, "but the way we fought back showed the character and the courage of this team."
It must be noted that San Diego raced to a 5-2 start last season before losing its final nine games, which ensured the departure of coach Mike Riley. "Last year, a lot of guys were like, 'Oh, my God, we won'—they didn't know what to do," says 39-year-old quarterback Doug Flutie, the 2001 starter who was beaten out by Brees in training camp. "This year it's a more businesslike approach. We expect to win."