Charging into the elite ranks of the NFL

I came so close to writing about them last weekend, but after one look at their schedule, in an uncharacteristically patient move, I held off and waited an extra week. Well, the wait was certainly worth it because now I can write about those San Diego Chargers with absolutely NO reservations regarding their credibility. On Sunday, the Californian bolts of lightening upped their winning streak to an impressive six games — second only to (gulp) Pittsburgh’s nine-game win streak — but more importantly, beat the Denver Broncos, their biggest competition in the AFC West.

Unlike the Eagles-Packers game, this match-up was destined to be a great game, and it did not disappoint. The contest featured two teams that for the most part were even. If you take a look at their schedules, it is deceiving that Denver was 5-1 while San Diego was 3-3 after six games; many of the teams Denver beat early in October are teams that San Diego handily disposed of later, in November. Also, with a win, the Broncos had the opportunity to make both teams even in the eyes of the standings, as a Chargers loss would have tied both teams with an 8-4 record. However, thanks to a 20-17 win, as well as a Patriot-esque performance on defense, the Chargers narrowly avoided becoming just another NFC team in AFC clothing. In other words, the Chargers have proven they are legit, and if they do make the playoffs, they’ll deserve to be there.

It was on Oct. 24, during a game against last year’s Super Bowl contenders, the Carolina Panthers, that the Chargers started to light things up and lay the foundation for the six-game winning streak they’ve been building ever since. In a league with super-teams Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New England and, until this past weekend’s debacle, Atlanta, it is significant that what appears to be this year’s Cinderella team, the Chargers, started their remarkable turnaround with a win against the Panthers. Not only were the Panthers last year’s Cinderella team, but they also were defeated by the Patriots, a team the Chargers are currently doing a poor man’s imitation of; by the way, with how the Pats have been playing, the Chargers’ poor man imitation currently lives in a New York penthouse.

In the 2001-2002 season, the Patriots wore the glass slipper. They didn’t just get to the big dance, but went home with Prince Charming, err, make that Lombardi. Quarterback Tom Brady may have been the MVP, but everyone knew the rejuvenated defense had allowed the Patriots to experience the success they had. In the same way, the Chargers owe much of their success to their extraordinary defense. On Sunday, Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer was picked off four times, thanks to the efforts of Chargers defenders such as safety Jerry Wilson, cornerback Jamar Fletcher, free safety Clinton Hart and cornerback Drayton Florence, who started only his second game of the season after starting cornerback Sammy Davis’ leg injury. In the fourth quarter, with 3:39 to play and the Broncos on the Chargers’ seven-yard line, Plummer launched a pass intended for wide receiver Rod Smith, who was in the end zone. But Florence tipped off Plummer’s pass, which, in turn, tipped off a series of events that resulted in Wilson’s catching the ball over Smith.

The game-saving play was nearly deja vu all over again, since only a drive and seven yards earlier on the 14-yard line, the Chargers’ penchant for tipping once again came up big. Plummer threw two passes that may as well have been clay pigeons, as Fletcher and Hart each got a chance to take aim and knock them both down. Fletcher and Hart’s great plays forced kicker Jason Elam to kick a 31-yard field goal and forced the Broncos to settle for three points instead of a potential seven. The depth of the Chargers is reminiscent of that of the Patriots, as shown by Florence’s ability to step up and the number of players involved in key plays.

With Pittsburgh, New England and Indianapolis in the AFC, the odds are stacked against this year’s SoCal Cinderella’s making it to the Super Ball, err Bowl rather. But the turnaround of this San Diego team has been nothing short of magical. From 4-12 a year ago to 9-3 with four regular season games left to play, the Chargers are in the midst of an impressive winning streak, the likes of which they haven’t seen since 1994 — incidentally the same year they made their first and only Super Bowl appearance. Left on the schedule are Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Kansas City. My bet is Tampa Bay doesn’t have quite enough exhilaration left over from their trouncing of Michael Vick’s Atlanta Falcons to propel their offense past the Chargers’ electric defense, yet against Indianapolis, Peyton is still “the man”-ning. And so it is my prediction that the Chargers take their 4-12 record of the 2002-2003 season and convert it into a 12-4 that carries them into the playoffs for this season. Eli Manning, eat your heart out.

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