Monday, December 27, 2004

Colts pass by Chargers

By Nick Schenck,
While there were different opinions on who would win Sunday’s game between the Indianapolis Colts and Chargers, most people expected a high-scoring affair considering two of the NFL's top-four scoring offenses were facing off.

The predictions proved true, as the teams combined for 65 points, four more than their combined season averages. Unfortunately, the Chargers lost a late second-half lead, falling 34-31 in overtime in front of 57,330 fans at the RCA Dome. The Colts gained their eighth-straight win and the third seed in the AFC playoffs, while snapping the Bolts' eight-game win streak.

Both tight end Antonio Gates and quarterback Peyton Manning broke long-standing NFL records. Gates’ four-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter was his 13th of the season, giving him the NFL record for single-season touchdown catches by a tight end.

Manning, on the other hand, passed Dan Marino for the most single-season touchdown passes in NFL history. Manning's three-yard scoring pass to running back James Mungro in the third quarter tied Marino’s record, while wide receiver Brandon Stokley's 21-yard catch in the fourth quarter gave Manning 49 touchdown passes this year.

As well as Manning played, especially late in the game, Chargers Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer thought the contest came down to special teams play. The Chargers allowed running back Dominic Rhodes to return six kickoffs for 236 yards (39.3), including an 88-yarder for a touchdown in the fourth quarter that cut into the Bolts’ 15-point lead and swung the momentum in the Colts’ favor.

“The sad part about it is that we lost the battle of field position because we didn’t cover kickoffs worth a damn,” Schottenheimer said after the game. “That is what ultimately enabled the Colts to beat us today. That’s one of the things that makes (the loss) so disappointing.”

The Chargers silenced the Colts’ crowd early in the game. Indianapolis marched to the Bolts’ six-yard line on the 11th play of their opening possession. With the crowd anticipating Manning’s record-tying touchdown pass, linebacker Donnie Edwards made his fifth interception of the season on the four-yard line.

With 4:59 left in the first quarter, quarterback Drew Brees passed to running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who outran the Colts’ defense for a 74-yard touchdown. Nate Kaeding’s extra point gave the Chargers a 7-0 lead.

Mike Vanderjagt put the Colts on the scoreboard with a 36-yard field goal five minutes later to make the score 7-3.

After wide receiver Tim Dwight’s 19-yard kickoff return, Brees passed to wide receiver Kassim Osgood for a 30-yard gain into Colts’ territory. Three plays later, Kaeding kicked a 50-yard field goal that put the Chargers up by seven points.

On the Bolts’ following series, Brees found Parker three times for 40 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown completion with 7:09 left in the first half. The extra point stretched the Chargers’ lead to 17-3.

The Colts rebounded with a 60-yard kickoff return by Rhodes. Manning’s 17-yard pass to Hartsock gave Indianapolis a first down on the San Diego 14. Yet, the Colts couldn't convert in the red zone. Manning's incomplete pass set up Vanderjagt’s 26-yard field goal with 4:33 remaining before halftime.

Less than two minutes later, Manning passed four times for 61 yards to give Indianapolis a first down on the San Diego 14. James rushed twice for nine yards before fumbling on third-and-1 from the five-yard line. Center Jeff Saturday recovered the ball for no gain, and Vanderjagt attempted his third field goal, which he made from 23 yards to cut the Colts’ deficit to 17-9 near halftime.

“We did a great job in the red zone,” Schottenheimer said after the game. “They were one-for-five in there. I talked at the meeting last night that it was going to come down to which team played better at or inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Unfortunately, I did not factor in our inability to cover kickoffs.”

Gates scored his record-breaking touchdown on the Chargers’ first drive of the second half. Lined up as a fullback, Gates caught a four-yard shovel pass from Brees and rumbled into the end zone to give the Chargers a 24-9 lead. After the game, Gates was modest when asked about his touchdown record.

“Obviously, it was an individual accomplishment, and I’ve always been a team player,” Gates said. “I think it would’ve been better if we got the win today.”

Coaches often call the NFL a copycat league, and the Colts did nothing to dispel that notion on their ensuing drive when Manning threw a shovel pass to Mungro for a three-yard touchdown with 6:14 left in the third quarter.

Holding onto a 24-18 lead, the Chargers put together an 11-play, 71-yard scoring drive. Gates caught three passes for 15 yards, while Tomlinson rushed six times for 45 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown run. Kaeding’s extra point gave the Bolts a 31-16 advantage, but it didn’t last for long.

Rhodes returned Kaeding’s kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown to bring the crowd to its feet 18 seconds into the final period of play.

Martin Gramatica’s kickoff bounced out of bounds, and the Chargers started their ninth series from their 40-yard line. Brees moved the offense into Indianapolis territory on three completions for 27 yards, but defensive end Dwight Freeney forced Brees to fumble on third down from the 25-yard line. Offensive tackle Shane Olivea recovered it for a nine-yard loss, leading to a punt.

On the potential game-tying drive with 9:25 remaining in the game, Manning connected on four passes for 55 yards. Linebacker Steve Foley stopped the drive, though, when he sacked Manning for an eight-yard loss on third down. Vanderjagt tried to shorten the Chargers’ 31-23 lead, but his 47-yard field goal missed wide left.

After the Bolts punted on their second consecutive drive, the Colts were in a difficult position with a fourth-and-4 from their 26-yard line with 2:15 left in the game. The punt team walked on the field, but Manning waved them off. The decision paid off when wide receiver Reggie Wayne hauled in a 19-yard catch down the Bolts’ sideline. Three completions later, Manning broke Marino’s record on his pass to Stokley. James ran in for the two-point conversion to tie the score 31-31 with 56 seconds on the clock.

Although Manning etched his name into NFL history with his touchdown pass, Chargers players spoke more about the fourth-down play after the game.

“That was all No. 18,” Edwards said, referring to Manning leading the game-tying drive. “It seemed like he’s the one that told the coach, ‘No, we’re going for it.’ I saw him do that, and I was like, ‘Oh, wow. Talk about some (guts).’ Give him credit. It was a great throw, a great catch.”

On first down from the San Diego 27, Parker made an acrobatic 22-yard catch to midfield, but landed in bounds with less than 50 seconds on the clock. Brees almost used the Bolts’ last timeout, but opted to spike the ball, forcing him to wait for Parker to get back to the line of scrimmage. The Chargers spent a timeout anyways because Parker was injured.

“It was like a double whammy,” said Brees, who stopped the clock with 20 seconds remaining. “You look back on it and say, ‘Well, I wish we could’ve just called a timeout right away, or spiked it right away and run off the field.’ Everything that could’ve gone wrong in that situation did.”

After the timeout, Brees’ pass to Gates was intercepted by linebacker Rob Morris. An illegal block penalty on the interception return gave the Colts a first down on their 34-yard line, where Manning knelt down to bring the game into overtime.

Indianapolis received the kickoff, and moved into San Diego territory on second down when Manning found Stokley for a 23-yard gain. Wayne caught a 35-yard pass on the next play. After James rushed for no gain, Vanderjagt kicked the 30-yard game-winner.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Matchup

The Chargers are urging fans to make Qualcomm Stadium one of the toughest place for NFL opponents to play. Fans should arrive at the game early and cheer loud before, during and after the game.

The San Diego Chargers (9-3), leaders of the AFC’s Western Division and winners of six in a row, host the NFC South’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-7) on Sunday, Dec. 12 at Qualcomm Stadium. Kickoff is set for 1:15 p.m. PST.

The Chargers have become one of the hottest stories of the National Football League’s 2004 season. The team’s six-game win streak is the second-longest active streak in the league behind Pittsburgh, which has won 10 in a row. The Bolts just finished a stretch which few would have predicted, winning three straight AFC West games, including road wins at Oakland and Kansas City, and last Sunday’s home win over Denver.

The Chargers are winning games with a balanced offense and an aggressive, attacking defense. San Diego is the only team in the NFL with a quarterback who has thrown 20 touchdown passes (Drew Brees, 21), a receiver with 10 touchdown catches (Antonio Gates, 11) and a running back with 10 rushing scores (LaDainian Tomlinson, 13).
San Diego’s defense is ranked second in the league against the run and has forced its opponents to try to beat them through the air. The defensive scheme worked as planned last Sunday against Denver as the Bolts intercepted a season-high four passes in their 20-17 win.

The Chargers own a two-game lead over Denver in the AFC West and are aiming to reach the postseason for the first time since 1995. San Diego’s final four games include Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay, followed by road games at Cleveland (3-9) and Indianapolis (9-3), and the season-ender at home against Kansas City (4-8). One thing assured for the Bolts is a winning record, the team’s first since 1995.

The power surge in San Diego has been engineered by quarterback Drew Brees, who has become a leading candidate for NFL Most Valuable Player and Pro Bowl honors. To say that Brees has been phenomenal this season would be an understatement. He’s the NFL’s fifth-highest rated passer, having thrown for 2,564 yards and a career-high 21 touchdowns with just four interceptions.