By Skip Bayless
It didn't look good for the Chargers.
LaDainian Tomlinson stood long-faced on the sideline with an injured ankle. Drew Brees had thrown two second-half interceptions, along with coughing up a sack fumble deep in his territory. On first-and-10 from San Diego's 20, backup running back Michael Turner lost 3 yards.
Second-and-13 from the 17 with 2:20 left in Sunday's game at the RCA Dome, San Diego up 19-17. Indy crowd, roaring like the 500.
You just knew Peyton Manning was going to get the ball back and make some 16-0 magic. You just knew Peyton's favorite kicker -- Mike Vanderjagt, whose criticism Manning once dismissed as liquor-induced -- would keep the undefeated season alive, 20-19, with a toasts-all-around field goal. You just knew
Michael "the Burner" Turner, a former fifth-round pick in his second season out of Northern Illinois, would leave The Perfect Season in smoking ruins by scorching Indy's earth 83 yards for a touchdown on an off-tackle run?
Chargers 26, Colts 17?
That was the Damn! Moment heard 'round the NFL. Yet it barely beat out seven other DM candidates in this history-protecting game. Yes, the 1972 Miami Dolphins' 14-0 regular season (and 17-0 season) is safe, probably for another 33 years.
Candidate No. 1: Brees, forcing a panicky "who's-he-throwing-to?" interception with a 16-3 lead late in the third quarter. Up to that point, the Chargers were making a how-to-beat-Peyton video: Get ahead, shut down Edgerrin James (25 yards on 15 carries) and pressure Manning with a blitz package right out of the 1985 Bears' playbook.
That year, Buddy Ryan's 46 defense often sent two blitzing linebackers from the same side at sitting-duck quarterbacks. That was the strategy that was making Chargers rookie linebacker Shawne Merriman almost unblockable. Manning was sacked four times, knocked down eight more and hurried 13 others.
Merry Christmas, Merriman.
So the only way Brees could blow the lead was by throwing Drew-in-headlights interceptions to Colts linebackers. Gary Brackett returned this one 19 yards to the Chargers' 26. Two plays later, it was 16-10.
Candidate No. 2: More Drew in headlights, holding the ball too long, giving Dwight Freeney just enough time to beat two blockers and separate Brees from the ball, if not his head. The Colts recovered at the Chargers' 4. Three plays later, the Colts led 17-16.
Candidate No. 3: After Keenan McCardell momentarily lost his mind and fielded a punt at his 1, the Chargers wound up in a third-and-9 situation at their 9. But this time, it was Drew in headlines as the little man sidestepped the rush and (double redemption) threw a lightning bolt 49 yards to McCardell. Safety Bob Sanders went glassy-eyed, failing to take deep-outside responsibility in the Cover 2.
That game-saving play led to Nate Kaeding's fourth field goal and a 19-17 Chargers lead with 6:46 left.
Candidate No. 4: The Colts' Dominic Rhodes showed the NFL the quickest way to stop Peyton. He fumbled away the kickoff.
Candidate No. 5: Two plays later, on first-and-10 at the Indy 29, Brees threw high and long into the end zone and was intercepted by Nick Harper. You had to admire the shockingly uncharacteristic go-for-the-throat mentality of Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, who has made a long and fairly successful career out of playing not to lose.
But you could almost hear a chorus of the '72 Dolphins yelling, "Damn, Drew!"
Candidate No. 6: Here came Peyton, hand-signaling, barking audibles and shredding the Chargers' pass defense. First-and-10, Colts, at San Diego's 24. Already, Vanderjagt had a 41-yard field goal with 3:21 left.
James ran for only a yard. On second-and-9, under heavy rush, Manning was called for intentional grounding. And on third-and-21, Manning was sacked for a 3-yard loss.
This was Manning's worst game of the season -- 19 incompletions (26 of 45) with two interceptions. Of course, San Diego's defense had plenty to do with that. But so did Indy general manager Bill Polian's comments on New York's WFAN last week that he didn't expect his team to go 16-0 and didn't want to risk injuries by even trying for it.
If you played for the Colts, how much urgency would you have felt to get up for a team that lost at home the Sunday before to the Miami Dolphins? Be careful what you wish for, Bill. Nothing good can come from your team having its bubble of invincibility burst at home on Dec. 18 by a five-loss team.
Now the Bengals and Patriots and Broncos and Jaguars and Steelers are thinking, "Hey, maybe the Colts aren't so unbeatable." Now it's very important that the Colts starters are allowed to play all four quarters in Seattle on Christmas Eve and attempt to regain their edge against a potential Super Bowl opponent.
Candidate No. 7: On second-and-13 from his 17, "Burner" Turner, who at 5-foot-10 and 237 pounds has legs bigger than Roger Clemens', took a straight I-formation handoff, veered off right tackle and -- no way -- found a freeway.
Burn rubber, Burner.
Remember, the Colts hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season. But safety Mike Doss took a bad angle and missed Turner and suddenly you could hear Ike and Tina: Big wheels keep on turnin'
Did they ever, 83 yards for the clinching touchdown. That gave him 113 for the game. And that gave the San Diego Chargers the most stunning win of the season.
The Damn! Moment of the Year.
Yet DM Candidate No. 7 was soon challenged by No. 8: Here came Manning once more, moving to second-and-10 at San Diego's 24 with 1:46 left. Plenty of time for another touchdown pass and an onside kick.
And Manning fired slightly high and behind Brandon Stokley, who still should have had it. Yet this also, in honor of the late, great John Lennon, was instant karma, going to get you, because Stokley had whined publicly last week about not getting enough passes thrown to him. Way to go, Brandon. Get selfish and cause problems with your team 13-0.
Make that 13-1.
This pass ricocheted off Stokley's hands and wound up in Quentin Jammer's for a game-ending interception. This, too, was justice. Jammer did the best job any cornerback has all season on Marvin Harrison.
That was the perfect end to a Perfect Season.