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Chargers knock off Colts, end chances for perfect season

INDIANAPOLIS -- Maybe the Indianapolis Colts will end up
thanking San Diego for ending their perfect season Sunday.

"It's tough to go 16-0. You have to play well every week,"
coach Tony Dungy said after his team was beaten 26-17 by San Diego
to end its 13-game unbeaten run.

"That wasn't the main goal in our mind. Losing wasn't what we
wanted to do, but if it brings us back with a little more resolve,
then maybe something will come of it."

No, the Colts weren't happy -- the locker room was quiet and
emptied quickly.

But the last team to start 13-0, the 1998 Denver Broncos, went
on to win the Super Bowl, and several players from that team say
now that losing their 14th (and 15th) games made the final victory
easier.

This was a game of dramatic turnarounds.

The Chargers went ahead for good on a 49-yard field goal by Nate
Kaeding with 6:41 left after the Colts erased a 16-0 deficit with a
field goal and two touchdowns in a six-minute span of the third
quarter. Then Michael Turner clinched it with an 83-yard touchdown
run after rookie Luis Castillo sacked Peyton Manning to knock the
Colts out of field-goal range.

"I think they're the best team in the football. But all week,
we felt we could beat them," said San Diego rookie Shawne
Merriman, who had two sacks and forced an important intentional
grounding by Manning. "It will always go down in the books, no
matter what happened before or after."

The win kept San Diego (9-5) alive for an AFC wild-card spot and
prevented Denver from clinching the AFC West. The Chargers will
need help to make the playoffs.

It also allows the Colts to rest starters for the final two
games, having already clinched home-field advantage for the AFC
playoffs.

And it certainly led to champagne celebrations by members of the
1972 Dolphins, the only team to complete a season undefeated.

"If they had gone undefeated, I would have been the first to congratulate them, and I know the players on our '72 team would have done the same," '72 Dolphins head coach Don Shula said. "They are a joy to watch and they are a team all football fans can be proud of."

"I really respect the way they play the game," quarterback Bob Griese said. "It's not like they are the Oakland Raiders, where it would be hard to root for them to go undefeated. The Colts are a great organization and they have represented my home state of Indiana with class."

Said Dungy: "The only consolation now is that we won't be asked
all those questions, have all the media around and we can have more
focus on our ultimate goal, to win the Super Bowl."

The Colts played dreadfully for much of the game -- almost as if
they wanted to take off the pressure.

Manning was sacked on each of the first two series and also
threw an interception, although he finished with 336 yards passing,
many of them late in the game. Fortunately for Indy, Drayton
Florence, who picked off the pass, fumbled it back as he was
returning it.

Still, the Chargers were leading 16-0 midway through the third
quarter on a 29-yard TD pass from Drew Brees to Keenan McCardell
and three field goals by Nate Kaeding.

"They were treating it like a playoff game and we were, too,"
Manning said. "I feel very disappointed that we lost the game."

The Colts rallied behind their defense.

Trailing 16-3 after Mike Vanderjagt's field goal, Gary Brackett
intercepted Brees' pass, setting up a 1-yard TD run by Edgerrin
James. Then Dwight Freeney sacked Brees to force a fumble, and
Manning threw a 1-yard TD pass to Dallas Clark.

Suddenly it was 17-16 with 40 seconds left in the third quarter,
and the RCA Dome, quiet for almost three quarters, exploded in a
raucous roar.

It got louder when McCardell fielded Hunter Smith's punt on the
goal line a few minutes into the fourth quarter and could get only
to his 8. But McCardell atoned, catching a 54-yard pass from Brees,
who finished 22-of-33 for 255 yards, to set up Kaeding's field goal
that put the Chargers up 19-17.

Nick Harper's end-zone interception after Dominic Rhodes fumbled
the ensuing kickoff stopped one threat for the Colts. Manning drove
the Colts down the field, but the grounding call when he was
pressured by Merriman cost him 12 yards and Castillo's sack forced
a punt.

Two plays later, Turner turned right end and raced untouched
down the sideline for the clincher.

"We call multiple plays in the huddle or on the line. That's
called an alert," Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer said of the
run by Turner, who was subbing for LaDainian Tomlinson, who bruised
his ribs. "We see what they show. Then we either run the play or
run the alert. That was the alert."

That was the alert that made the 1972 Dolphins happy. It might
be the alert that takes the pressure off the Colts en route to an
NFL title.

Game Notes
Schottenheimer said that Tomlinson, who finished with 76
yards on 24 carries, was not seriously hurt. ... Colts right tackle
Ryan Diem, sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right
knee. ... Chargers tight end Antonio Gates and wide receiver Marvin
Harrison and Reggie Wayne of the Colts all went over 1,000 yards
for the season, the seventh straight year past that mark for
Harrison. ... Edgerrin James set the franchise mark for touchdowns
with 64, one more than Lenny Moore of the old Baltimore Colts.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.