- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
- 0 Shares
SAN DIEGO -- Say goodbye to the old San Diego Chargers. You've got to like these new guys.
The old Chargers would have lost Sunday's AFC West showdown against Denver in any number of ways. The fourth-quarter fade pass by Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer that was tipped by cornerback Drayton Florence would have gone into the hands of Rod Smith instead of Chargers defensive back Jerry Wilson.
In the old Chargers days, referee Ron Winter would have ruled that there was inconclusive evidence to oveturn a third-quarter play in which Broncos cornerback Kelly Herndon tipped a Drew Brees pass off the ground to safety Kenoy Kennedy, who ran 95 yards for an apparent touchdown. The new Chargers actually got the right call. Winter sided with the Chargers. That wouldn't have happened in the past.
Sunday's 20-17 victory chased away the cloud that has hung over this franchise forever. At 9-3, the Chargers have a two-game lead over the Broncos and should win the AFC West going away. It was fitting, though, that the day started with dark clouds and was filled with rain. Only the Chargers would have their only home sellout of the year on a day local television anchormen were giving winter weather watches.
"Our mindset is different as a team," Chargers quarterback Drew Brees said. "Two years ago, if you remember, we were 8-4 and were saying, 'Let's win half of our next four and we're in.' That's not the right mindset. You have to win every chance and not look far ahead."
That Chargers team lost their last four and finished 8-8, typical old Chargers. Last year, every break went against them and they went 4-12. But this is a different team with a different mentality. Part of the reason for the change is the fear factor. The leaders of this team are playing for their careers every day.
In April, the Chargers were prepared to blow Brees to the ocean and out of town as fast as possible. They drafted Philip Rivers and rumors swirled that Brees would be traded or at the very least replaced.
The new heart of the revamped 3-4 defense were rejects. Steve Foley was a 3-4 linebacker who couldn't get playing time in Cincinnati and Houston and was signed for next to nothing. Randall Godfrey was a banged-up middle linebacker coming off pink slips in Tennessee and Seattle.
"We believe you have to face adversity in order to take your game to the level you want to take it," Brees said. "I don't think we would have the season we are having right now if we hadn't gone through something like last year. We had a team facelift with a lot of new players. We had some guys who were not very high character guys. We have very high character guys as leaders of our team now."
"Winning teams get those lucky bounces," Chargers linebacker Donnie Edwards said. "This year there have been so many plays that bounced our way. Last year, we didn't make those plays and ended up losing those games. It seems like the winning teams get that luck."
Sunday was a day in which the team that fought adversity the best would win. It was cold (in Southern Cal standards at 58 degrees with a cold ocean wind) and wet.
Turnovers and penalties filled the play-by-play. Brees had an interception and Eric Parker lost a fumble after a completion. Jake Plummer threw two picks in the first quarter and four for the game. The Chargers had 11 penalties for 94 yards. The Broncos had eight for 57.
Hitting on both sides of the ball was intense. Broncos halfback Reuben Droughns was accidentally poked in the eye on his first offensive play. After he returned, the Chargers run defense stuffed most of his carries right back in his face and held him to 38 yards on 14 carries.
The Chargers won the battle of field position. Too many Broncos drives started inside their 15-yard line. Too many of the Chargers drives started in Broncos territory. San Diego's offense converted two first-half drives into LaDainian Tomlinson touchdown runs and led 17-7 at the intermission.
"I knew this: make sure you don't turn the ball over, let Mike Scifres punt it and then play the good, containing type of defense where you don't give up big plays," Marty Schottenheimer said. "In the final analysis, we knew going in this was going to be a very difficult game given the circumstances. They are a very well-coached football team. We knew they'd be ready to play and they certainly were, but we'd like to think we were ready as well."
Sure, the Chargers cornerbacks, who primarily play zone, gave up too many big plays. Ashley Lelie had catches of 43 and 36 yards. Rod Smith had a 45-yard catch. But the Chargers also came up with four interceptions. No Broncos wide receiver caught more than four.
The two plays that ultimately determined the outcome were in the final four minutes. Chargers defensive coordinator Wade Phillips devised an aggressive but simple game plan that kept Plummer in the pocket. The book on Plummer is he's not an accurate thrower in the pocket. His game is making plays on the run outside the pocket.
Phillips rushed Foley to the outside or sent defensive backs in on blitzes in order to take away Plummer's outside running lanes. The strategy worked. Plummer only got out of the pocket about five times and his accuracy was off from inside the pocket, as he completed only 16 of 40 passes for 278 yards and four picks.
"We knew we had to get some pressure on this guy and if it wasn't a sack we were going to have to get somebody in his face every play," Foley said. "He's a good mobile quarterback. He can throw in either direction. We knew with constant pressure we can force him to make mistakes. We knew we could beat their tackles off the edge."
Plummer still brought the Broncos back to within three points and drove them to the Chargers 7-yard line with under four minutes left. For whatever reason, Mike Shanahan called for a fade pass to Plummer's left to Rod Smith. Good thought. Bad throw.
Plummer lofted it so high you wondered if Smith would call for a fair catch. As the ball came down, Florence looked into Smith's eyes and knew the ball was coming and tipped it.
"That's the way he was coached to do it," Schottenheimer said. "You're going down the field, the guy is shoulder to shoulder with you. You don't play the man. When their eyes get about that big, that's when you go to make the play. He went up, batted the ball in the air."
Wilson was there waiting and he intercepted the tipped pass preserving the 20-17 lead.
But that wasn't the ballgame. With less than two minutes left, Brees was sacked and fumbled. But he was albe to recover it. After a punt, the Broncos had one more chance to tie but on a fourth down with eight seconds left, rookie Darius Watts caught a pass at the Chargers 36 and, with no Broncos timeouts left, the game ended.
"Last year, we would have lost a game like that," Donnie Edwards said.
These are the new Chargers. The cloud hung over them Sunday, but they still won.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
2dEric D. Williams
1dMel Kiper Jr.