ANTONIO GATES was hurting as he made his way to his locker. The San Diego Chargers' Pro Bowl tight end had just played four quarters with a dislocated toe, and the pain racing from his foot to his brain was so severe he couldn't find the words to describe it.
Gates was not at a loss, however, when summing up the importance of the Chargers' stunning divisional playoff triumph over the Colts at Indianapolis's RCA Dome on Sunday, an improbable 28--24 victory that sent San Diego into an AFC Championship Game showdown with the undefeated New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass. "You think this wasn't huge for us?" Gates said. " Tennessee [in the wild-card round] was getting over the hump. This was like, O.K., we got something special now."
The Chargers had lost four consecutive playoff games over 13 years, including one last January to the Patriots after San Diego rolled to a league-best 14--2 record—a defeat that led to the ouster of coach Marty Schottenheimer and the hiring of Norv Turner. The Chargers were thought to be talented but fragile, able to beat any opponent but more likely to beat themselves with penalties and mental blunders.
The analysis may have fit the 2004 or '06 seasons, when many of these same players endured painful home playoff losses despite being favored, but it no longer applies after a road win against the defending Super Bowl champions. San Diego prevailed despite Gates's being hobbled, NFL rushing leader LaDainian Tomlinson's sitting out all but two plays of the final 39-plus minutes with a hyperextended knee and Rivers's missing the fourth quarter with his own knee injury. The Chargers won despite a controversial holding call that negated Antonio Cromartie's interception return for a touchdown. They won despite Nate Kaeding's fourth missed field goal in as many playoff games. Such a triumph is the sign of a team finally playing with purpose and belief in itself.
Tomlinson had challenged his teammates to come together during a players-only meeting he'd called on Nov. 23, when San Diego was struggling at 5--5. He liked its response. "I saw that they believed we're a special team," he said on Sunday. "That's when I knew we really had something here. If you think about all the things that have happened to us this season—the coaching changes, the 1--3 start, guys getting hurt today, other players stepping up—there has to be something special going on."
There was on Sunday. Rested and at full strength, the Colts nevertheless were forced into three turnovers and failed to stop San Diego's offense when it mattered most, in the second half. The Chargers put up 21 points in the final two quarters, and they did it with names that had casual fans Googling desperately: Michael Turner, Darren Sproles and Billy Volek.
After Tomlinson went down, Turner, his backup, ran for 71 yards on 17 carries. Third-stringer Sproles took a screen pass 56 yards for a third-quarter score. And when Rivers was hurt after his cleat appeared to stick in the artificial turf, eighth-year pro Volek directed the decisive touchdown march.
Jogging onto the field after Peyton Manning put the Colts ahead 24--21 with a scoring pass early in the fourth quarter, Volek led the Chargers on an eight-play, 78-yard drive that culminated in his one-yard sneak. At one point during the series Tomlinson turned to Rivers on the sideline and flashed a smile that was 50% admiration, 50% incredulity and 100% satisfaction. "No one seemed rattled," Tomlinson said later. "Guys just kept playing. It was amazing to watch."
The overall transformation of the Chargers has been no less impressive. Through the first 10 games they struggled to find their rhythm as the players learned to trust and believe in the new coaching staff and the coaches learned the strengths and weaknesses of the players. It all jelled at the right time: in December and January.
In his last five games Rivers has thrown eight TDs and only two interceptions; his passer rating was above 100 in four of them. The improvement can be traced to increased familiarity with wideout Chris Chambers, who was picked up at the October trade deadline; a better understanding of what Norv Turner wants; and Turner's renewed emphasis on the running game.