A dominant win over New England on the road was an impressive first step in a grueling six-game stretch for San Diego
In the Chargers' locker room these days, a myopic view of the season is strictly enforced. On the schedule posted in the clubhouse last week the only one of the team's 13 remaining games that was visible was AT NEW ENGLAND. Coach Marty Schottenheimer had the rest covered so his players would focus on Sunday's matchup and not dwell on a brutal six-game stretch that, beginning with the date in Foxborough, includes three trips to the East Coast. The other games in that span: Pittsburgh, at Oakland, at Philadelphia, Kansas City, at the New York Jets. And in four of those matchups the Chargers' opponents will be well rested, coming off byes.
Schottenheimer bites his lip and mostly declines to comment about the schedule. He preaches that the only play that matters is the next play, the only game that matters is the next game. He won't give his team a chance to make excuses. But after one of the great wins in franchise history, a 41-17 rout of the Patriots in front of a shocked sellout crowd at Gillette Stadium, Schottenheimer took a deep breath and considered the hard road his team faces. "If we get to the playoffs," he said, "we will have gone through an absolute crucible of fire to get there."
Recent history bears him out. From 2001 through '04 only three of the 48 teams that made the playoffs had schedules that ranked among the 10 toughest in the NFL for their respective seasons. It's likely that San Diego's 2005 slate will end up falling into that category. But don't ask the players to take the long view. "I've been with Marty a long time," linebacker Donnie Edwards said after Sunday's win, "and all I know is the next game."
After the Chargers stuttered offensively and lost their first two games--to the Cowboys and the Broncos, leaving the impression that the defending AFC West champs' reign atop the division would be a short one--they couldn't wait to get to the next game: home against the Giants. San Diego unleashed All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson for 192 rushing yards and three touchdowns and routed New York 45-23.
Checking the schedule board, the Chargers then focused on the Patriots and handed them their first loss in Foxborough since December 2002. San Diego exposed the beat-up Pats' every weakness and played to its own strengths: running the ball 60% of the time, passing efficiently and defending the run. The Chargers rushed for 183 yards, including 134 by Tomlinson, while holding New England to 73. They clinched the game with a muscle-flexing scoring drive that ate up 8:55 of the fourth quarter. San Diego quarterback Drew Brees kept 2004 first-round pick Philip Rivers nailed to the bench with a 19-for-24 passing performance good for 248 yards, no interceptions and two pinpoint touchdown passes--an 11-yarder to Keenan McCardell and a 28-yarder to Reche Caldwell--of the variety usually thrown by the guy on the other side of the field, Tom Brady. But on this day the best quarterback was Brees, no contest.
The solid thumping of the three-time Super Bowl champs, who were coming off a great comeback win at Pittsburgh, was a little shocking even to the Chargers. "I'll probably believe it when I wake up in the morning," tackle Roman Oben said afterward. "I wish I could have watched this game from the stands. We give up no sacks, rush for 183--against the Patriots. Amazing."
Added Tomlinson, "I'm on the sideline in the fourth quarter looking up at the scoreboard, and I see 31-17, and I think to myself, This is really happening. We're beating New England at their place, really beating them."
Resplendent in a black pinstripe suit and purple shoes, Tomlinson walked briskly out of Gillette Stadium, pulling a suitcase on rollers with one hand and carrying a wrapped sandwich and a quart of Gatorade in the other. Though he had just played the physical Patriots, he looked surprisingly fresh, like a young executive striding through an airport to make a flight. For someone who takes a pounding each game--most defensive coordinators believe that if they stop Tomlinson, they stop the Chargers--he has shown remarkable durability, missing only one game to injury in four-plus seasons. He has scored 68 touchdowns in 68 career games, including the postseason. "When I get near the goal line," he says, "I smell the end zone."