January 3, 2010

2009: Chargers Defeat Colts in Overtime of AFC Wild Card Playoff

The San Diego Chargers had upset the Colts in Indianapolis in an AFC Divisional playoff game following the 2007 season, and on January 3, 2009 they again met the Colts, this time in a conference Wild Card playoff matchup at Qualcomm Stadium.

That the Chargers were in the postseason at all was a surprise. It wasn’t that Head Coach Norv Turner’s team hadn’t been considered a contender prior to the 2008 season, but they had gotten off to a slow start and stood at 4-8 at the end of November. Meanwhile, the Denver Broncos had started off at 4-1 and seemed likely to cruise to the AFC West title, but played erratically down the stretch. Still, they were three games ahead of San Diego with four to go and appeared to be a lock for first place. Instead, the Chargers rallied to win three straight and Denver went 1-2; when the teams met in the season finale at San Diego, it was a 52-21 blowout in favor of the Chargers. Both teams finished at 8-8, but San Diego went to the postseason on the basis of a better division record.

The Colts ended up in second place in the AFC South with a much more impressive 12-4 tally, a game behind the conference’s top-seeded Tennessee Titans (13-3). Moreover, Indianapolis was riding a nine-game winning streak. QB Peyton Manning, as usual, was the key to the offense – despite being hindered by a knee injury, he still ended up throwing for over 4000 yards (4002) for the third consecutive year and ninth time overall (up to that point) while completing 66.8 percent of his passes and tossing 27 for scores. WR Reggie Wayne, who emerged from the shadow of the declining Marvin Harrison as the top receiver, caught 82 passes for 1145 yards.

The Colts rolled to the first score of the game on an 81-yard first quarter drive that was capped by a one-yard run by RB Joseph Addai. Manning completed all six of his passes along the way. However, San Diego evened the score not quite five minutes into the second quarter on a three-yard TD run by RB LaDainian Tomlinson that was set up by a 30-yard pass play from QB Philip Rivers to TE Antonio Gates.

After Adam Vinatieri put Indianapolis back in front with a 43-yard field goal, the Chargers scored another touchdown on a 9-yard run by RB Darren Sproles with 42 seconds remaining in the half. By this point, Sproles was playing in place of the star running back Tomlinson, who had suffered a groin injury and would not return. Still, San Diego was in front at halftime, 14-10.

In the third quarter, Indianapolis regained the lead when Manning surprised the Chargers defense on a third-and-five play with a quick count and fired a pass to Wayne that resulted in a 72-yard touchdown, flying past CB Antonio Cromartie who was caught unprepared.

The Chargers responded by moving inside the Indianapolis 10 yard line late in the third quarter, but Sproles was hit at the two and fumbled into the end zone; Colts DT Raheem Brock recovered for a touchback. Another San Diego scoring threat was thwarted by the Colts defense with just over 12 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter as free safety Antoine Bethea intercepted a pass by Rivers at the goal line.

With time running down under three minutes, San Diego’s Mike Scifres boomed a punt 52 yards that went out at the Indianapolis one yard line. The Colts were unable to sustain a game-clinching drive, as Manning was sacked by LB Tim Dobbins – the only sack the Chargers registered all day – on a third down play that forced Indianapolis to punt from the one. San Diego got the ball back with excellent field position on the Colts 38 and Nate Kaeding tied the score with a 26-yard field goal with 31 seconds remaining.

The game went into overtime, and San Diego won the toss. With a ten-play drive that included three defensive penalties, the Chargers scored the winning touchdown on a 22-yard run by Sproles (making up for the earlier fumble). San Diego had thwarted Indianapolis in the postseason once again by a 23-17 tally.

The game marked the 25th overtime postseason contest in NFL history, going back to the 1958 Championship game; in this instance, the Colts lost by the same score that they won by on that day some 50 years earlier.

Darren Sproles (pictured at top) had an outstanding performance as he spelled Tomlinson and accumulated 328 total yards – 105 on 22 rushing attempts, 45 on five pass receptions, 106 on four kickoff returns, and 72 on three punt returns. Also noteworthy was the punter, Scifres (pictured above right), who punted six times for a 52.7-yard average and, more importantly, pinned the Colts inside their 20 yard line each time (51 yards to the San Diego 10, 58 to the 15, 50 to the 3, 67 to the 5, 38 to the 9, and 52 to the 1). As Colts RB Dominic Rhodes put it, “I think that their punter is the MVP of the game. He did a real good job of putting us deep in our territory, and their defense did a good job of keeping us there."

Also for the Chargers, Philip Rivers (pictured at left) completed 20 of 36 passes for 217 yards with one picked off. Antonio Gates, playing on a sprained ankle, led the team with 8 catches for 87 yards.

Peyton Manning (pictured leaving the field at bottom) threw 42 passes and completed 25 of them for 310 yards and a TD with no interceptions. Reggie Wayne, thanks to the long scoring catch, had 129 yards on four receptions. WR Anthony Gonzalez nearly reached the hundred-yard mark with 97 yards on 6 catches. TE Dallas Clark caught the most passes for the Colts with 7 (for 33 yards). The Chargers defense held the Colts running game to 64 yards on 22 carries; Joseph Addai led with 44 yards on 16 attempts.

The Chargers run ended the next week as they lost to Pittsburgh in the divisional round. For Indianapolis, it was the last game for Head Coach Tony Dungy, who chose to step down after seven years in which he accumulated a 92-33 record that included a 7-6 playoff tally with one Super Bowl championship.