It would be difficult to say that the Chargers did not deserve a victory against the Colts yesterday because on several levels San Diego put out a very respectable effort. You could point to any one of a number of times in which a remarkable play by San Diego had stopped an Indianapolis drive or set up a Chargers scoring opportunity. Those examples are spread fairly evenly among the Chargers defense and their special teams. And what about the Chargers offense you may ask? The Chargers had less than 200 yards of total offense and Philip Rivers threw for only 86 yards with 2 interceptions. I didn’t mention his touchdowns because there weren’t any. Well, as I said it would be difficult to say that it was an undeserved win for San Diego â€“ but not impossible.
Manning put the ball in the air a whopping 56 times, that’s more passing attempts than he’s made in any other game in his ten year career. He completed 34 of those passes for 328 yards and 2 touchdowns. And of course the six INT’s. I suppose it’s possible to imagine a situation in which an NFL quarterback was intercepted 6 times in a single game and the consensus would not be that there were serious fundamental issues with either mechanics or decision making or both. But the pickoff fiesta that Peyton Manning suffered in San Diego doesn’t fall into that category.
While Manning may have been pushing the envelope in order to make a quick strike and overcome an early lead by the Chargers it’s pretty clear that at the very least his choices were less than brilliant especially given the rainy conditions. San Diego cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who picked Manning off three times got the first one of the day near the goal line when Peyton put an ill advised throw over the short middle into a group of Chargers defenders. Colts wide receiver Aaron Moorehead was coming into the crease but the pass was too far out in front of him and Cromartie stretched to intercept it in the end zone instead.
The second pick came when the football was tipped on an attempted screen pass, and the last one was pulled down after a Hail Mary by Manning with no time left on the clock. You could make a reasonable argument that those two were not necessarily errors by Manning but the other four were legitimate takeaways owing to a combination of good awareness by the secondary and poor placement by Manning. Cromartie’s second interception which was ultimately taken for a TD on a well designed Chargers drive was a particularly deflating moment for Indy as the Chargers went up 23-0 with almost 9 minutes left in the half.
There are two notable things about that point in the game. One is that with the exception of the last Chargers touchdown, Philip Rivers and the offense had practically nothing to do with San Diego’s scoring. Chargers running back Darren Sproles started the game by taking the opening kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. Then, after Manning was intercepted for the second time in two minutes (that was the screen pass intercepted by San Diego linebacker Shaun Phillips) the Chargers had the ball deep in Colts territory, couldn’t move the football and kicked a field goal. Finally, after Indy got pinned at the goal line on the following kickoff, they punted to Sproles (bad idea) who burned them with another 45 yard return for a touchdown. Even on the one successful drive that Rivers conducted he fumbled the ball on the snap at the Colts 34 yard line and was extremely lucky to have recovered it.
The second interesting (if not predictable) thing is that from that moment forward the Chargers never mounted a shred of offense; in the next six drives spanning three quarters they managed to cross their own 40 yard line only once, and the only exception was the time they made it out to the 49 and then failed to break out of their own half of the field.
By comparison, the Colts provided some pretty good offense following the 23-0 lead by the Chargers. Indianapolis came back with a solid 67 yard drive for a touchdown, and then after stuffing San Diego on 5 plays Manning took Indy 62 yards on another well engineered drive to give Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri a shot at a 42 yard field goal. And therein, as the bard will tell you, lies the rub. Vinatieri missed the field goal and a chance to make it a two possession game. San Diego took a 23-7 lead into the locker room at halftime.
In the second half Manning continued to chase the Chargers. His short pass over the middle on the Colts first possession while driving for the red zone was intercepted by Chargers linebacker Matt Wilhelm but Indy’s defense got the ball back without any damage being done. Backed up to his own 10 yard line, Manning took the Colts 90 yards for their second touchdown of the day, then followed up with a crisp pass to TE Bryan Fletcher for the two point conversion to bring Indy to within 8 points â€“ a one possession game. Three plays later, Colts linebacker Gary Brackett fell on the football after Philip Rivers fumbled into the end zone, and Indianapolis had pulled to within two points. Colts running back Joseph Addai tried to run it in for another two point conversion but the Chargers stacked him up short of the goal line. The Colts trailed 23-21 with the entire fourth quarter to play.
The final quarter saw three possessions by the Chargers. None of them went further than 20 yards, and one ended in an interception, the second of the day for Colts linebacker Clint Session. That pickoff at the Chargers 42 yard line set Indianapolis up for a shot at the game winning field goal with just over a minute left in the game. Adam Vinatieri who had missed an earlier field goal that would have resulted in the Colts being up 24-23 late in the game instead of down 23-21, had a chance to redeem himself. And not just a chance but a good chance â€“ the Colts had driven to the 11 yard line giving Vinatieri a 29 yard field goal attempt, an easy chip shot for the veteran kicker. Vinatieri missed it. The Colts did get the ball back again with 22 seconds but three Manning passes deep down the left sideline fell incomplete and Indianapolis lost 23-21.
San Diego’s victory came on the strength of four different factors, the lack of any one of which would have resulted in a Colts win; 1) dazzling plays on special teams by Darren Sproles, 2) early mistakes by Peyton Manning in throwing interceptions, 3) a pitiful performance by Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, and 4) two horrible calls by the officials.
The first three factors we already discussed, but the last one, the poor officiating is the hardest to assess. Remember reading earlier that Clint Session picked off two Philip Rivers passes? Well, in the first quarter, with the Colts down 16-0, Session picked Rivers off in the Colts end zone and rumbled 96 yards, getting tackled just short of the end zone. But in a gut wrenching reversal the officials acknowledged that even though Session had cleanly intercepted the ball and run it back without any flags, the officials had made an error by blowing an â€œinadvertant whistleâ€ and therefore his legitimate 96 yard return was going to be taken away from him. On a referee’s mistake.
But the officials weren’t finished blowing calls yet. On one of Indy’s fourth quarter drives, one that began on the one yard line and had already gone 60 yards, Peyton Manning launched a perfect 35 yard pass on 3rd and 8 down the right sideline. Colts wide receiver Aaron Moore had beaten the defender by half a step and as he crossed the five yard line the ball was about to drop right into his arms. Just before the ball arrived, Chargers cornerback Eric Weddle grabbed Moore’s left arm and threw him to the ground preventing Moore from pulling in the football. The official stood 5 yards away and watched the entire play, and did not call a penalty. It would have either been a touchdown right there or would have set the Colts up with first down on the 1 or 2 yard line, a position which almost certainly would have gone in for a Colts TD.
So did the Chargers deserve to win this game? No they did not.