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Undermanned Chargers stun Colts 28-24
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ A trip to New England in the dead of winter hardly captivates San Diegans.
The Chargers can't wait.
The franchise that couldn't win a postseason game for more than a decade finds itself one step from the Super Bowl. Make that one huge leap, because after sending home the defending champion Indianapolis Colts 28-24 on Sunday, the Chargers go for the AFC title next weekend against the unbeaten Patriots.
"I'm pretty sure we'll be huge underdogs, but it's still going to be fun, just to get the opportunity," said LaDainian Tomlinson, who had better recover quickly from a bruised left knee that sidelined him in the first half against Indy. "All the rest of the teams have had their opportunity to play New England, and we'll get another opportunity to do so in the AFC championship game. What a better way to go back there."
If the Patriots, who routed the Chargers 38-14 in Week 2, expected a rematch of last January's conference title game with the Colts, they can't be depressed to see San Diego traipsing across the country. An undermanned San Diego, to boot, with Tomlinson, quarterback Philip Rivers (right knee), tight end Antonio Gates (toe) and defensive end Luis Castillo (rib) hobbled.
Not that anyone expects condolences from the 17-0 Patriots, who don't do sympathy well.
"That was a tremendous win today by San Diego," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Going out on the road and winning in Indy today shows the kind of mental toughness they have.
"We're prepared for everybody. As we saw today, any number of players could be in the game."
Including Billy Volek at quarterback and Michael Turner, a $2.35 million insurance policy for Tomlinson who paid off Sunday. Volek led San Diego 78 yards on eight plays for the winning score with 4:50 remaining, with Volek sneaking in from the 1. The Chargers' big-play defense, led by linebackers Shawne Merriman, Shaun Phillips and Stephen Cooper, then held on downs at its 7, and stopped Indy again in the final moments to preserve their eighth straight win.
Last year, the Chargers surged into the postseason with a league-best 14-2 record, only to flop in the first round against New England. It cost Marty Schottenheimer his coaching job, replaced by Norv Turner.
Under Turner, they were just 5-5, but haven't lost since. Of course, the Patriots haven't lost since the preseason.
"There's been a mind-set in our league that our guys are front-runners and when it gets tough or real challenging that they don't rise to the occasion," Turner said. "I think we've put that thing to rest. I think that one's done forever. We've got some guys who compete and fight, and scratch and claw, as good as I've been around. I told them in the locker room I've been doing this a long time, I've never been around a more gutsy performance by a team."
The Chargers and Colts (13-4) played a ragged and rugged game in which Indy's three turnovers were critical. San Diego led the league with 48 takeaways and a plus-24 turnover margin, and it victimized Manning to spoil three good scoring chances.
"We did a good job moving the ball," said Manning, who threw for 402 yards. "San Diego tightened up down there in the red zone. We just couldn't quite finish it and that was disappointing."
Crushing, really. Expectations just about everywhere outside of San Diego were for a rematch of last year's AFC championship game, in which the Colts rallied to beat the Patriots. From there, they beat Chicago in the Super Bowl.
"We didn't play well enough to win," Colts coach Tony Dungy admitted, "and when you make that many mistakes, it comes back to haunt you in the end."
The physicality of the game could haunt the Chargers next Sunday. Turner said L.T. and Rivers were questionable, and as well as Volek, Michael Turner, Vincent Jackson (seven catches, 93 yards, a touchdown) and other less notables performed, can backups really test the Patriots?
"Seventeen have tried and it hasn't happened," Rivers said of New England's perfect record. "We think it can happen."
All-Pro cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who led the NFL with 10 pickoffs, got an interception and fumble recovery. 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.
It was a gutty showing by Rivers, who threw for three scores - he banged his right knee on a 56-yard screen pass TD to Darren Sproles. And Turner, who could be a starter elsewhere but usually sits behind league rushing leader Tomlinson, rushed for 71 yards. Tomlinson ran seven times for 28 yards.
"No one seemed rattled," Tomlinson said. "Guys just kept playing. It was really amazing to watch, to be honest with you."
They might need to be even more amazing next week.

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