After handing New England a huge gift, the San Diego Chargers believe it's time to give the unbeaten Patriots something else: a challenge.
And, oh yeah, a loss.
By stunning Peyton Manning and the defending champion Colts 28-24 on Sunday, undermanned San Diego removed New England's biggest road block to the Super Bowl. Not that the Chargers are intimidated by facing the 17-0 Patriots in the AFC title game next weekend.
Despite having LaDainian Tomlinson and Philip Rivers on the sideline, the Chargers won their eighth straight game. Of course, that's not even half of what New England has achieved.
L.T. departed in the first half with a bruised left knee, and Rivers went out in the third quarter with a damaged right knee. Both said they hoped to be ready for the Patriots, and coach Norv Turner said they are "questionable."
"That's the true measure of a team," Tomlinson said. "Guys stepped up and got it done."
Those guys included Billy Volek at quarterback and Michael Turner as the main runner. Led by those subs, San Diego went 78 yards on eight plays, with Volek sneaking in from the 1 with 4:50 remaining for the lead. The Chargers' big-play defense then held on downs at its 7, and stopped Indy again in the final moments to preserve their eighth straight win.
For the Colts (13-4), it was a bitterly quick elimination from the postseason.
A year ago, they won three playoff games, then beat Chicago in the Super Bowl. They couldn't recapture their touch on offense or defense this time.
"What happened last year doesn't make it any easier this year," Manning said. "When you come back and commit yourself to the '07 season and you don't finish it like you want to, it hurts."
A defense that allowed the fewest points during the season wore down against the equally physical Chargers. Still, the Colts went in front 24-21 when Anthony Gonzalez slipped past Marlon McCree down the left sideline to complete a 55-yard scoring play with 10:07 to go. The Chargers challenged that Gonzalez stepped out of bounds at about the 25, but the play stood.
So San Diego's backups then won it, helped by a 27-yard screen pass to rookie Legedu Naanee and a 15-yard face-mask penalty against Indianapolis cornerback Marlin Jackson.
"When you have so many weapons, you don't have to do anything special," Volek said. "It was not like the game was out of reach. I had to go out there and fill my role."
Manning did throw for 402 yards, completing 33 of his 48 throws, but both interceptions killed deep scoring threats.
Indianapolis lost only six fumbles all season, but Marvin Harrison, who hadn't been hit in almost three months while sidelined by a knee injury, was stripped on his first reception by Cromartie. McCree recovered at the San Diego 22, stymying a lengthy drive begun with Kelvin Hayden's interception.
San Diego capitalized with a 78-yard march, including three third-down conversions. Jackson beat double-coverage for his 14-yard score on third down, making it 7-7.
The first Indy scoring series was vintage Manning. He picked apart the Chargers with short timing throws to Joseph Addai and Reggie Wayne, who picked up 8 yards on a fourth-and-2 at the San Diego 37. Two plays later, tight end Dallas Clark used a double fake on Clinton Hart for a 25-yard touchdown catch.
Indy went on top 10-7 on Adam Vinatieri's season-best 47-yard field goal, then the Chargers, now minus L.T., got to the Colts 31 behind Turner, who gained 25 yards on the march. But Nate Kaeding's 48-yard field goal try bounced off the right upright.
In the final seconds of the half, Manning's high pass was tipped by Wayne and picked off by Cromartie, the league leader in interceptions. He got several blocks, including one on Manning, in running it back to the end zone, but a block by Eric Weddle was ruled holding, negating the long touchdown.