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Asecond-string tight end named Jeb Putzier hauled in a 39-yard pass deep in San Diego Chargers territory on Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium, and with the clock running down and first place in the AFC West at stake, few locals regarded this as a good sign. Sure, the Chargers still held a 20--17 lead over the Denver Broncos with six minutes remaining, and their fired-up defense had forced three turnovers already. But with Denver 18 yards from a goahead touchdown and a rowdy contingent of Broncos supporters
cheering wildly following Putzier's reception, most in the crowd of 65,395 began to get a familiar, sinking feeling. And who could blame them? It had been nine years since the Chargers' last winning season, and lots of bad football had turned San Diegans into the most skeptical fans in the NFL. With their team seemingly on the verge of a colossal fourth-quarter collapse in their biggest home game in nearly a decade, they felt as though a giant plug had been pulled.
The energy on the Chargers' sideline had ebbed as well. Coach Marty Schottenheimer had 20/20 vision-- "I figured we'd hold them to a field goal that would tie the game," he said afterward--and most of San Diego's offensive starters were sitting together on the bench, plotting their response to a Denver score. Then, one by one, they rose to support a defense that, in the words of running back LaDainian Tomlinson, had "carried us" throughout the afternoon. Wideout Keenan McCardell was buoyed by the way the defense had responded in the previous week's road win over the Kansas City Chiefs. "Yo, check it out," McCardell told his teammates on the sideline. "Our D is fittin' to win this thing right now."
Three consecutive running plays gave the Broncos first-and-goal at the seven, and Denver coach Mike Shanahan sent in a pass-run option to be determined by the defensive alignment. Reading bump coverage on the outside, quarterback Jake Plummer, who had been intercepted three times, called a quick end-zone pass to wideout Rod Smith. The pattern--a fade--was appropriately named: In the midst of another post-Halloween swoon, the Broncos (7--5, after a 5--1 start) were about to slip back to the role of a bubble team in the playoff race with the NFL season at the quarter pole (box, page 78).
Here's how it played out: Plummer dropped back a couple of steps and lofted a pass toward Smith; second-year cornerback Drayton Florence, with his back to the quarterback, read Smith's eyes and reached up blindly to deflect the ball with his right hand; free safety Jerry Wilson, having correctly sniffed out the pattern, swept over to intercept the ball in the corner of the end zone. After the Chargers survived one more, last-gasp Denver drive in the closing seconds, they finally clinched their first winning season (9--3) since 1995 and took control of a division they had last won in '94, en route to the franchise's lone Super Bowl appearance.
It all happened just as no one had predicted back in April, when San Diego was contemplating what to do with the first pick in the NFL draft. Well, almost no one. "I know people won't believe this, but even before the season started, we knew we had it in us," Wilson said after the Chargers won for the sixth straight time, matching their longest winning streak since they started 6--0 in '94. "We knew we could become division champs and compete to win a Super Bowl."
the chargers weren't feeling so optimistic after the first meeting with the Broncos this season, a 23--13 loss on Sept. 26 in Denver that dropped them to 1--2. They flew home that night, and on the bus ride from the airport to the team's training facility in Mission Valley, the seeds of their turnaround were sown. "We were still trying to find an identity," quarterback Drew Brees recalls. "On that bus ride we said to one another, This is it: Either we turn things around right now, or we end up suffering like we did last year."
The next day Schottenheimer increased the pressure on Brees by moving rookie Philip Rivers, the No. 4 pick in the draft who missed almost all of training camp because of a protracted contract dispute, ahead of Doug Flutie on the depth chart. Having struggled mightily in 2003, the fourth-year veteran Brees was on the verge of losing his job in Week 4, when the Chargers hosted the Tennessee Titans. In that game San Diego jumped to a 24--7 lead only to see the Titans close to 24--17 in the fourth quarter. With just under seven minutes remaining and the ball at his 42, Brees threw a short pass into the flat that Tennessee cornerback Samari Rolle appeared ready to intercept and return for a score. But the ball went through Rolle's hands, and wideout Reche Caldwell made a one-handed catch. He raced for a touchdown that propelled the Chargers to a 38--17 victory.
From that game on Brees has been one of the league's best players. He has 21 touchdown passes this season, against four interceptions, and if not for the brilliant play of the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning, he would be a favorite for league MVP honors. One of Brees's interceptions came on San Diego's fifth play from scrimmage on Sunday, when Broncos strong safety Kenoy Kennedy made a diving grab of a pass to tight end Antonio Gates. The play snapped the quarterback's team-record streak of 194 passes without a pick.
Who knows what the future holds for Brees--Schottenheimer says having Brees, who's in the final year of his contract, and Rivers on the roster together is an "ideal problem to have"--but right now the Chargers are Drew's Crew. That said, he was unspectacular (14 of 27, 106 yards) on Sunday, yielding the offensive spotlight to Tomlinson (30 carries, 113 yards, two touchdowns). LT was just about all the offense San Diego had last year, when he finished as the NFL's third-leading rusher and caught 100 passes. But he has been bothered much of this season by a groin injury, and the Chargers haven't had to depend on him as much, thanks to the emergence of Brees and Gates and the acquisition of the savvy McCardell from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.