November 12, 2010

2006: Chargers Overcome 21-Point Deficit to Defeat Bengals in Offensive Battle

The San Diego Chargers were 6-2 as they traveled to Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium to take on the Bengals on November 12, 2006. Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer’s team had outstanding talent on both sides of the ball. Third-year QB Philip Rivers (pictured at right), taking over for the departed Drew Brees, was exceeding expectations in his first season as a starting quarterback. RB LaDainian Tomlinson was at the height of his game, and the defense, featuring LB Shawne Merriman and NT Jamal Williams, was solid.

The Bengals, coached by Marvin Lewis, made it to the postseason in 2005 after a 15-year absence, but were struggling thus far. They were 4-4 and had lost four of their last five games. The offense could score points, with QB Carson Palmer (pictured below left) having outstanding wide receivers in Chad Johnson (who legally changed his name to Chad Ochocinco in 2008) and T. J. Houshmandzadeh to throw to and RB Rudi Johnson to carry the ball. However, the defense was below average and prone to giving up too many points.

It appeared that it would be Cincinnati’s day as the Bengals scored the first three times they got the ball. First, FB Jeremi Johnson ran for a three-yard touchdown to complete a six-play possession that covered 61 yards. After the Chargers had to punt a second time, the Bengals took 10 plays to go 89 yards with Rudi Johnson running the last seven for a TD. San Diego went three-and-out and, following a punt with just seconds remaining in the first quarter, Palmer connected with Chad Johnson on the first play for a 51-yard touchdown. It was 21-0 after the opening period.

The Chargers finally got on the board in the second quarter thanks to a nine-yard run for a TD by Tomlinson. But the Bengals responded with a long, 14-play drive that ended with another touchdown pass by Palmer, this one to WR Chris Henry from seven yards out. Cincinnati took a 28-7 lead into halftime.

In the third quarter, it was San Diego’s turn to score on three straight possessions. Tomlinson scored his second touchdown on a four-yard run to complete a six-play, 66-yard drive. After the Bengals went three-and-out and punted, Rivers immediately threw to WR Malcom Floyd for a 46-yard TD that narrowed the margin to seven points. Cincinnati responded with Palmer throwing to Chad Johnson for a 35-yard gain that led to a 21-yard field goal by Shayne Graham, making the score 31-21. But with Tomlinson running for 29 yards on three carries and Rivers throwing for 60 yards, including a nine-yard scoring pass to TE Brandon Manumaleuna, the Chargers closed the gap to 31-28.

The three-point margin didn’t last long as the passing combination of Palmer to Chad Johnson produced a 74-yard touchdown on the first play of Cincinnati’s next possession. The score stood at 38-28 in favor of the Bengals.

Following the Cincinnati touchdown, RB Michael Turner returned the kickoff 49 yards to the Bengals’ 40 yard line. Six plays later, the third quarter ended with the Chargers on the two. On the first play of the final period, Tomlinson ran around left end for a two-yard touchdown that again turned the contest into a three-point game.

Cincinnati got the ball at its own 20 after the ensuing kickoff resulted in a touchback, and on the first play Palmer fumbled when sacked by LB Shaun Phillips, who recovered for the Chargers at the Bengals’ nine yard line. On the next play, Tomlinson ran nine yards for his fourth touchdown, and in stunning fashion San Diego, twice down by 21 points in the first half, was ahead, 41-38.

The teams traded punts before the Bengals, helped by an 18-yard pass interference call, went back in front again with a 44-yard field goal by Graham. The Chargers responded with a methodical 12-play drive that was highlighted by a 27-yard pass completion from Rivers to TE Antonio Gates to the Cincinnati eight yard line. With third down at the five, Rivers scrambled for time and tossed a shovel pass to Manumaleuna for the game-winning touchdown.

The Bengals had one last chance and Palmer completed five passes to get down to the San Diego 15. But on fourth-and-ten with 49 seconds left to play, Palmer overthrew WR Glenn Holt, who was covered, and the Chargers could celebrate. The final score was 48-41.

Only once before, in 1983, had the Chargers ever overcome a 21-point margin to win. While they ran up 431 total yards, they were outgained by the Bengals, who had 545. But while Cincinnati outscored the Chargers 28-7 in the first half, San Diego significantly turned the tables in the second half, scoring 42 points to the Bengals’ 13.

In his best performance to date, Philip Rivers completed 24 of 36 passes for 338 yards with three touchdowns and none intercepted. LaDainian Tomlinson (pictured below) scored four TDs as he gained 104 yards on 22 carries and caught 6 passes for another 54 yards. Malcom Floyd had 109 yards and a touchdown on five pass receptions.

In defeat, Carson Palmer had the first 400-yard passing performance of his career as he went to the air 42 times and completed 31 for 440 yards with three TDs and no interceptions. Chad Johnson caught 11 of those passes for a club-record 260 yards and two scores. Rudi Johnson ran for 85 yards on 18 carries, including a TD.

The comeback was considered a key milestone in the development of the young QB Rivers, who demonstrated poise and leadership skills. “As he grows as a player, he's unbelievable,” said Antonio Gates. “He's doing a tremendous job leading this team. He was on the sideline saying they were going to need to score more than 28 points to beat us. What more could you ask for in a leader?”

As Marty Schottenheimer, a former AFL linebacker, summed up: “It took me back to the old AFL days where you just try to find a way to have one more point than they do.”

San Diego went undefeated through the rest of the regular season, finishing atop the AFC West with an NFL-best 14-2 record. However, it came to a bitter end when they lost to the Patriots in the Divisional round of the postseason. Schottenheimer, who had been at odds with GM A.J. Smith, was dismissed during the offseason. Cincinnati won its next four games, but then lost the last three to go 8-8 for the year, tied with the Steelers for second in the AFC North.

LaDainian Tomlinson led the league in rushing with 1815 yards on 348 carries (5.2 avg.) and 28 of his NFL-record 31 touchdowns. His 186 points scored broke the 46-year-old record of 176 set by Green Bay’s Paul Hornung in 1960. Tomlinson was named NFL MVP by the Associated Press, The Sporting News, and Pro Football Writers of America, and received the Bert Bell trophy from the Maxwell Club.

Philip Rivers made it into the top 10 in passer rating (92.0), passing yards (3388), touchdown passes (22), and yards per attempt (7.4). His 2.0 INT percentage was tied for sixth lowest – with the quarterback he had succeeded, Drew Brees.

Carson Palmer, a year following a serious knee injury, finished the season slowly but still threw for over 4000 yards (4035) and ranked second in the league with 28 touchdown passes. Both he and Rivers were selected to the Pro Bowl.

Chad Johnson (the future Ochocinco, pictured below) led the NFL with 1369 yards on his 87 pass receptions. He, too, was named to the Pro Bowl and also received consensus first-team All-NFL recognition.