Suddenly confident Chargers could be this year's Cinderella

Monday January 6th, 2014

The Chargers are the only team to beat the Broncos at home this season.
Steve Nehf/The Denver Post/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a wild and eventful NFL wild-card round, while spending a snowy Sunday in Indianapolis. ...

• No more calls, folks. We have a winner in the NFL's annual playoff-team-no-one-saw-coming contest. We're prepared to report that the San Diego Chargers just tried on Cinderella's shoe and it fit. Feel free to start the party.

If you're Peyton Manning, you're probably thinking, "It figures.'' Just when you thought Manning, with his tortured playoff history, might finally get a fairly clear path to the Super Bowl in what has been a record-breaking season in Denver, along comes Philip Rivers and his pesky Chargers, a tandem that has tortured him plenty over the years.

MORE COVERAGE: Divisional round preview | Schedule, results | Best, worst from wild-card round

The top-seeded Broncos (13-3) just drew the No. 6-seeded Chargers (10-7) in next week's AFC divisional round, and go ahead and affix the usual labels on San Diego's upstart playoff entry, fresh off an impressive 27-10 first-round road upset of No. 3-seed Cincinnati on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. The proverbial "Dangerous Team'' in the tournament? Yep. The clear-cut "Nobody Believed in Us'' club? Without a doubt. They're hot (five straight wins), they've been in playoff mode for more than a month now and they're playing loose and with house money. Every cliche in the book seems to wear well on these streaking Chargers.

Denver's a 10-point favorite over San Diego heading into next weekend, but get ready to hear all about Manning's mediocre 9-11 career playoff record, his eight one-and-done playoff trips and how the Chargers have blocked his path before. In 2007, when the 13-3 defending Super Bowl champion Colts were the No. 2 seed and No. 3 San Diego was 11-5, it was Rivers and the Chargers (with a clutch relief outing from backup quarterback Billy Volek) who went into the RCA Dome in Indianapolis and dispatched Manning and the favored Colts 28-24.

The same basic story unfolded in the 2008 playoffs as well, only in more excruciating fashion. The wild-card Colts were 12-4 and the No. 5 seed, but still finished four games better than the No. 4-seeded 8-8 Chargers, who had to win their final four games just to make the playoffs. Sound familiar, Bolts fans? San Diego beat Indy 23-17 in overtime in that game, with Manning never even touching the ball in the extra period.

When you factor in this year's results, with San Diego being the only team to beat Denver at home -- a 27-20 upset in Week 15 -- the Chargers can't possibly be the outfit Manning and the Broncos were hoping to tangle with next Sunday. San Diego held Denver to its lowest point total of the season in that Thursday night game. Manning's 0-2 record against San Diego in the playoffs means no team has ended more postseasons for No. 18, and the Chargers' most recent playoff win before Sunday came in that 2008 AFC first-round game against Indianapolis.

Add it all up, and we know where the pressure will fall most heavily next week in Denver: Squarely on the shoulders of Manning and the top-seeded Broncos, who still must deal with the sting of last year's quick exit from the AFC divisional round, a double-overtime loss to Baltimore.

The Chargers could be a very tough out for Denver, especially since San Diego head coach Mike McCoy was the Broncos offensive coordinator last season and knows how to best game plan against Manning. If you can keep the ball away from Manning, you have a chance to limit the damage, and no team did that better this year than San Diego. Only twice were the Broncos held to fewer than 65 offensive snaps in 2013, and it was against the Chargers both times. In Denver's Week 15 loss to San Diego, the Broncos ran a season-low 54 plays, which was key to the Chargers' victory.

If the Broncos' magic carpet ride of a season is to continue after next weekend, Manning and Co. are going to have to earn their win against the suddenly confident Chargers, the elite eight playoff team that is playing like it has nothing to lose.

• It's Groundhog Day when the Packers play the 49ers lately. Green Bay always loses, and San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is always the biggest reason why. The 49ers are in the final eight for the third year in a row, and they've now ended the Packers' season in the playoffs two years running. San Francisco's 23-20 win at Lambeau Sunday was a thriller that wasn't decided until kicker Phil Dawson's 33-yard field goal barely snuck through the arms of Green Bay would-be kick blocker Davon House on the final play.

Until Green Bay figures out how to defend Kaepernick, the Packers aren't going back to the Super Bowl, no matter how brilliant Aaron Rodgers' game might be. Kaepernick beat Green Bay with his feet in last year's divisional round, and then shredded the Packers with his arm in Week 1 of this season. On Sunday, he mixed the two elements of his game superbly, rushing for 98 yards on just seven carries -- the second highest total of his career on the ground after his 181-yard running day against Green Bay in last year's playoffs -- and throwing for 227 yards.

But if there's a reason a lot of folks are going to like San Francisco's chances of winning next week at Carolina in the divisional playoffs, it's because of the potential impact of 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree. He wasn't healthy and back in the lineup when the Panthers beat the 49ers 10-9 in Week 10 at Candlestick Park. But Crabtree is all the way back now. His eight catches for 125 yards were huge for the 49ers against the Packers, who simply did not have any answer for him in coverage, especially after losing cornerback Sam Shields to injury in the first quarter.

And guess what 49ers fans? Your dream of one more game at Candlestick Park is still alive. All that has to happen is for the 49ers to win at Carolina, while New Orleans pulls the divisional round upset in Seattle, and presto: fifth-seeded San Francisco would host the sixth-seeded Saints in the NFC title game on Jan. 19.

Crazier things have happened than those two outcomes. And that's just this weekend.

• Remember when the Packers at Lambeau Field in the playoffs were the NFL's version of the gold standard? Once upon a time, people were born, lived long lives and died without ever seeing a Green Bay postseason loss at home. But those days are so over.

Through the 2001 season, the Packers were 13-0 at home in the playoffs all-time, a record that spanned the Lombardi and Holmgren eras. But since the 2002 playoffs, when Michael Vick and Atlanta went to Lambeau in the first round and won, Green Bay is a stunning 3-5 on the frozen tundra in the postseason.

• The tried and true NFL narrative that warm-weather teams can't win in the cold took a beating this weekend. New Orleans wins at frosty Philly. The sun-drenched Chargers deal with the elements in Cincinnati and breeze to victory. And the California kids from San Francisco brave the sub-zero wind chills of Lambeau Field to conquer the Packers.

Maybe we can all put that too-easy storyline to rest for a while. This just in: The teams that played better won this weekend, even if they had to play in weather conditions they're not necessarily used to.

Andy Dalton certainly gave his many critics all the fodder they needed to claim that he's not the answer in Cincinnati. The Bengals' quarterback ended his third NFL season just like he did his first two: With a first-round playoff loss and the stench of underachievement in the air. Dalton was horrendous in the second half of Cincy's 17-point loss to the underdog Chargers, throwing two ugly interceptions and committing a key fumble that was caused by contact with the ground while he was trying to scramble for a first down.

Dalton clearly felt the pressure of getting his playoff goose egg erased on Sunday, and it showed, as he started forcing passes and making suspect decisions as the game turned toward the Chargers' favor in the second half. The Bengals were 8-0 at home this season, they were playing the bottom seed in the conference in San Diego, a team they beat on the road earlier this season. Dalton now has six playoff interceptions and a fumble lost in his three postseason games, with just one touchdown pass.

There's no way the Bengals stay completely status quo with their quarterback depth chart after this latest disappointing performance by Dalton. If he retains the team's starting job next season, he at least has to be forced to compete with some quarterback who gives the organization and Bengals fans hope of an actual playoff victory some day.

• Some of the heat has to fall on head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden in Cincinnati as well. Lewis is a woeful 0-5 in the playoffs with the Bengals, and his guys were the only home team that didn't show up in this weekend's first round. Lewis is a good regular-season coach, but can he find the key to getting his club ready and playing well in the postseason?

As for Gruden, he didn't do his chances of someday earning an NFL head coaching shot any favors with his play-calling against San Diego. It was uninspired and he has not taken Dalton's game to the next level once January arrives. The Bengals had averaged 41.6 points in their past five home games -- and 35 points per game all year -- and came up very, very small with their 10-point showing against an underrated Chargers defense. San Diego outscored Cincinnati 20-0 in the second half, after trailing 10-7 at the break. It was the Bengals' second consecutive game with four turnovers.

• This weekend was the second time in four years that three of the four home teams lost in the first round, with both No. 6 seeds advancing to the final eight. The Saints and Chargers both got the road win despite holding onto the bottom rung of the playoff ladder, and No. 5 San Francisco made it a very good weekend for the wild-card qualifiers. Only Kansas City's mind-boggling 28-point blown lead at Indy on Saturday kept the wild-card teams from going a perfect 4-0 this weekend.

In 2010, Green Bay won at Philadelphia in the first round and went on to go 4-0 in January and claim its latest Super Bowl title. Baltimore was the other No. 6 seed that season, and won easily at Kansas City in the first round, before losing by a touchdown at Pittsburgh in the divisional round.

• Pretty good weekend for the brothers Pagano. Chuck's Colts author a comeback win for the ages Saturday against the Chiefs, and John's sixth-seeded Chargers pull the upset of the first round in Cincinnati.

That means a full 25 percent of the NFL's final eight this season have a Pagano on their coaching staff. And half of the remaining four-team AFC playoff field. But both Chuck, the Colts head coach, and John, the Chargers defensive coordinator, have to hit the road next week for major challenges in New England and Denver, respectively.

• And the beat goes on and on and on for the Chiefs and Bengals in the playoffs. Make that the beatings. The misery index just spiked again in Kansas City and Cincinnati. The Chiefs haven't won in the playoffs since the 1993 season, and have now lost an NFL-record eight consecutive postseason games, with a stunning seven one-and-done playoff trips in the past 20 seasons.

The Bengals have waited even longer, failing to win a playoff game for the 23rd consecutive season after losing to the visiting Chargers. This was the fifth playoff berth of the 11-year Marvin Lewis coaching era, but all five have produced one-and-done experiences. Cincinnati hasn't earned a postseason victory since beating the Houston Oilers in the first round of 1990.

• OK, that stat about teams winning the Super Bowl after they visit Philadelphia in the Eagles' home-openers in each of the past four seasons is getting a little more serious in light of San Diego's unexpected playoff berth, and then its first-round upset win against the Bengals.

New Orleans in 2009, Green Bay in 2010, the Giants in 2011 and Baltimore in 2012 were the visitor in Philly's home-opener, and all four went on to take the big confetti shower. San Diego drew that straw against the Eagles this season, and now Mike McCoy's team has surprisingly made the league's final eight.

• Hard to underestimate the return of Sean Payton in the Saints' success this season, but as I've thought since the offseason, the hiring of Rob Ryan as the defensive coordinator is the even bigger factor in New Orleans' renewed prominence. Even with Payton back calling the plays and the shots for that high-powered offense, the Saints couldn't have won this season if nothing had changed on what was a historically bad defense.

The Saints had to gut out their 26-24 win at Philadelphia Saturday night, and I'm not sure what part of the New Orleans' defensive effort was more impressive. Holding the NFL's leading rusher, LeSean McCoy, to just 77 yards on 21 carries? Keeping DeSean Jackson without a reception until the last three minutes of the third quarter? Giving up just three first-down conversions in 12 third-down situations? Or limiting the high-flying Eagles offense to a relatively paltry 256 total yards?

The Saints running game (185 yards on 36 carries) helped their cause immeasurably against the Eagles, but Ryan's defense led the way to the franchise's first road playoff win in history, and gives the Saints more than a fighting chance next week at top-seeded Seattle in the NFC divisional round.

Philadelphia made its run once No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis left the game with concussion symptoms in the third quarter, but getting the job done without its best defensive talent is a trend Ryan's defense has gotten used to this season. Key performers like safety Kenny Vaccaro, cornerback Jabari Greer, outside linebacker Will Smith, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive end Keyon Coleman and cornerback Patrick Robinson all went on injured reserve at some point this season.

• Not that I love their upset chances, but the Saints would seem to be in a pretty good place as they head for Seattle. For one, they got rid of the can't-win-on-the-road narrative to a certain degree with their victory at Philadelphia, and secondly, they'll be hell-bent on avenging that 34-7 loss to the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on Monday night in Week 13.

Seattle isn't 27 points better than the Saints, so Pete Carroll's team might be psychologically set up for over-confidence next Saturday afternoon. And we all know the divisional round can be a killer for the top seeds, coming off a bye, as Denver in 2012, Green Bay in 2011 and New England and Atlanta in 2010 have recently proved.

In fact, in the last five NFL seasons, six out of 10 of the No. 1 seeds have lost in the divisional round, a pitiful .400 winning percentage that could have been even worse if it were not for the aberration of 2009, when both the top-seeded Saints and Colts made the Super Bowl. Saints fans have to love those numbers, not to mention San Diego rooters, with the No. 6 Chargers headed for No. 1 Denver on Sunday.

• I'm sure Kansas City is painfully aware of this, but I don't know that I've ever seen a team score 41 points in just less than the game's opening 41 minutes and still have a fight on their hands. But it was 41-24 Chiefs with 4:12 left in the third quarter, and then the Colts outscored Kansas City 21-3 over the course of the game's final 19:12.

One thing about the NFL becoming such a predominant passing league is that comebacks of that magnitude are much more possible, given that teams run hurry-up offenses so much more often and effectively.

"We said coming out of halftime, we've got one drive and if we don't score, we're going to be in our 2-minute offense the rest of the game,'' Colts quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen told me from the winning locker room. "We ended up throwing the early interception in the third quarter, they score a touchdown [to make it 38-10], and we had to just start throwing completions and see what happened. That's the only philosophy you can have at that point. You can't look at how big the mountain is, you just have to start climbing.''

• If I were a Chiefs fan I wouldn't want to hear it, of course, but that would have been a monumentally crippled Kansas City team advancing to the divisional round if it had been able to hang on against the Colts. With Jamaal Charles, Brandon Flowers and Donnie Avery facing a week of concussion protocols, and Justin Houston (leg) and Knile Davis (knee) both coming up lame in Indy, either the Patriots or Broncos might have been drawing the easiest assignment of the NFL's final eight. And yes, I know the Kansas City JV team played its butt off and should have beaten the Chargers in San Diego in Week 17.

• I always wonder if NFL players, in the midst of an epic game like the Colts' comeback against the Chiefs, know they're involved in something that will go down in football history. It apparently depends on who you talk to. Indianapolis tight end Coby Fleener, Stanford grad, had a sense of what was unfolding Saturday in Lucas Oil Stadium.

"[Colts offensive tackle] Gosder Cherilus actually said something to me before the game, like this could be one of those playoff games we used to watch on NFL Films when we were kids,'' Fleener said. "He said, 'That could be us today.'''

It was all of that, and more.

• Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton probably deserved more credit for Indy's miracle win, but he got somewhat lost in Luck-Mania. All Hilton did was set a new team playoff record for catches and yards, with his monstrous 13-reception, 224-yard, two-touchdown day. The guy Hilton bumped from the Colts record books? Hall of Famer Raymond Berry, who in the momentous 1958 NFL title game caught 12 passes from Johnny Unitas for 187 yards and a touchdown, helping Baltimore to its landmark 23-17 win in overtime.

Wow. There is breaking a record, and then there's surpassing a legend. At least on one magical day.

• It was an unmistakable success overall, but what a strange season in Kansas City. The Chiefs were a defensively led team in the first half, with 35 sacks in the opening seven games and playmakers galore on that side of the ball. Offensively, Kansas City couldn't score much in the season's first two months, then really found its groove and became a high-powered attack for much of the season's second half. And in the end, 44 points on the road in the playoffs wasn't enough for an injury-depleted Chiefs defense to protect and get the win.

• It didn't prove to be their day of validation, but the truth is Andy Reid and Alex Smith turned Kansas City's football fortunes dramatically for the better this season. The minute Reid and Smith joined forces in K.C., it looked like a quantum upgrade for the Chiefs at the game's two most pivotal positions -- and it was. Kansas City didn't win a game it should have on Saturday in Indy, and there's no excuse for that, but they're in markedly better shape at head coach and quarterback than they were at the end of the 2012 season.

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