Rivers delivers Bolts into first-place tie
AP Sports Writer
SAN DIEGO – The calendar hadn’t even gotten to Halloween and the San Diego Chargers already had been knocked 3 1/2 games behind the Denver Broncos in the AFC West race.
Fans were jumping off the bandwagon rather than ride out what appeared to be a spectacular crash in the making. The Bolts were being written off in the media. Preseason talk of reaching the Super Bowl was replaced by the stunning thought that the Chargers, who have been guilty in the past of fawning over their press clippings, might miss the playoffs entirely.
Yet there was Philip Rivers, telling reporters after a 34-23 loss at home to the Broncos on Oct. 19 that the Chargers needed to simply worry about themselves, focus and hopefully look up in a month and be in it.
It turned out that Rivers was as accurate with his words as he has been with his right arm.
“None of you believed us,” Rivers told the media after Sunday’s win over Philadelphia, which, coupled with Denver’s surprising loss at Washington, left the teams tied at 6-3 atop the division.
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Then again, did the Chargers themselves believe what Rivers was saying a month ago?
“There is no question,” said Rivers, who signed a $93 million contract extension in August. “We didn’t know it would happen like this, or this fast, that we would be sitting here with the same record, but we believed we could get ourselves back in it because we were talking about 11 more ballgames. There is a lot of football left still and there is no telling where things can go in either direction.
“We’re going to keep the focus though and make sure it goes in the right direction.”
Much to the fans’ annoyance, the Chargers have been slow starters in Norv Turner’s three seasons as coach. They start slowly in games and in seasons. They have managed to extricate themselves in time for the playoffs.
The Chargers and Broncos meet again Sunday in Denver, where the Chargers traditionally have had a hard time winning even without referee Ed Hochuli helping the Broncos. It will be their first visit to the Mile High City since Hochuli’s blown call helped the Broncos pull out a 39-38 win early last season.
The Chargers have won four straight. The Broncos have lost three straight.
Sound familiar? That’s how last season ended, when the Chargers rallied with four straight wins to clinch their third straight division title with an 8-8 record. They routed the Broncos 52-21 in the season finale to finish off Denver’s historic collapse.
So what’s changed?
The Chargers finally are playing close to how everyone thought they would, although it’s a slightly different cast of characters than the bunch that was physically beaten up during a season-opening win at Oakland.
The Chargers had four starters knocked out of that game, including run-stuffing defensive tackle Jamal Williams with a season-ending injury. Center Nick Hardwick still isn’t back from ankle surgery stemming from an injury that night, but he appears close to returning. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson finally looked like the L.T. of old on Sunday after being dogged for weeks by a sprained ankle sustained in the opener.
Although the Chargers have long bragged about their depth, it took a while for the backups to step up.
“What we went through in September, I’ve never been through that with a team in terms of the number of guys that were asked to do things that they hadn’t done before, and then put it together being a very beat up team playing a group of very physical teams three weeks in a row in Baltimore, Miami and Pittsburgh,” Turner said.
“I thought our guys hung in there pretty darn good. It was rough in Pittsburgh. It was rough coming back from that but our guys have responded.”
The Chargers managed to win only one of those three straight games against playoff teams from a year ago, beating Miami in San Diego. The Steelers outmuscled the Chargers in Pittsburgh, just as they had in the playoffs last year.
It’s taken the Chargers this long to play what Turner said was their most complete game of the season, a 31-23 win over the Eagles. Tomlinson ran for a season-high 96 yards and two touchdowns, and Rivers threw two touchdown passes to raise his season total to 16, against six interceptions.
The defense stuffed the Eagles three times inside the 10-yard line, including on one drive when Philly had a first-and-goal at the 1.
San Diego’s four-game winning streak includes victories against division doormats Kansas City and Oakland, a comeback win against the stumbling New York Giants engineered by Rivers and the Eagles victory.
The Chargers had 17 sacks in those games after getting just seven in their first five games.
Rivers believes the Chargers have shown their character and mental toughness. He’s also looking for more, knowing that there’s a lot of ball still to play.
Being 6-3, he said, “doesn’t put us in any category, it doesn’t make us anything other than that, but it does give us a lot of confidence and I think it has shown that we’ve made a lot of improvement.”