They got off to an awful start.
But with a flurry of 17 points in just over six minutes in the third quarter, it looked as though the Colts would once again find a way to win after taking a 17-16 lead on San Diego. And even after the Chargers were able to pull ahead by two points on a 49-yard Nate Kaeding field goal in the fourth quarter, the Colts moved the ball with precision and into position for a long field goal attempt with 3:16 left in the game.
But the problem that haunted them most of the day caused a loss of 10-yards on an intentional grounding penalty and another 3 yards on the fourth sack of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. The Chargers defense shut the door on the Colts perfect season -- after a wonderful 13-game run -- with relentless pass pressure that caused rushed throws, mistakes, and turnovers.
After allowing just 12 sacks in their first 13 games, the Colts' offensive line was simply overwhelmed for the first time this season. They lost right tackle Ryan Diem early in the game, which brought rookie Dylan Gandy onto the field at right guard, shifting Jake Scott from that position to Diem's slot.
But the pass protection for Manning was just as bad -- if not worse -- prior to that event.
The Chargers, tops in the NFL against the rush, proved why they have earned that distinction by holding Edgerrin James to his lowest production of the season. He finished the day with just under 2 yards per carry (13-25) on a day when the Colts hoped they would exploit the Chargers' 27th-ranked pass defense.
Meanwhile, the Chargers attempted to take advantage of the absence of defensive tackle Corey Simon, pounding the ball inside. But the Colts defense did an adequate job of bottling LaDainian Tomlinson up, holding him to 75 yards on 24 attempts, just under 3 yards per carry. And until 2nd-year player Michael Turner bounced a run outside in the closing minutes for an 83-yard touchdown, the Colts defense was more challenged by Drew Brees and the passing game than their heralded rushing attack.
Brees was sharp early, completing 16 of 21 passes in the first half,
primarily with short routes that then opened up the occasional deeper strike. He
hit five different receivers for 191 yards, including a 29-yarder to Keenan McCardell for their first score of the game.
The Colts obviously missed team sacks leader Robert Mathis who was sidelined with an injury as their pass rush was inconsistent. But the Colts did a good job of adjusting at half time, allowing Brees just 6 completions in the second half and picking him off twice.
Colts linebacker Gary Brackett provided a much needed spark in the third quarter as he snagged his third interception of the season, setting the Colts up at the San Diego 26 and his team trailing 16-3. After a 25-yard Manning to Harrison pass, James blew his way through congested traffic to pull the Colts within six points.
Dwight Freeney gave the team another boost with a sack and a forced fumble inside the Chargers' 4-yard line to set up the Colts' second touchdown, a 1-yard pass to tight end Dwight Clark.
The other interception, by cornerback Nick Harper, helped the Colts overcome a disastrous fumble by Dominic Rhodes on a 4th-quarter kickoff return right after the Chargers had pulled ahead by just two points, 19-17. Brees tried to connect with Reche Caldwell in the end zone from the Colts 24 which would have been a decisive blow with just under six minutes remaining. But Harper made a great play on the ball that deprived San Diego of a scoring opportunity and put the Colts in a position where all they needed was a field goal to claim the lead.
And it looked like they were going to do it until Manning was pressured on a second-down at the Chargers' 23-yard line and threw the ball away in desperation.
The 12-yard intentional grounding would have forced a 52-yard field goal attempt, certainly achievable by Mike Vanderjagt. But then the Chargers sacked Manning on the next play for three more yards, forcing a punt. It was the turning point of the game as Turner sealed the victory with his 83-yard run two plays later.
Not only was Manning sacked four times, twice by rookie Shawne Merrimann, pressure kept him off balance much of the day. Both times he was intercepted he had pressure in his face and the ball was tipped first by his receivers. The Colts quarterback also completed some amazing pass attempts while getting smacked around in the pocket. Manning had 336 yards passing and onetouchdown pass on the day.
The Colts (13-1) head to Seattle (12-2) next Saturday. The Seahawks have a 10-game winning streak going after slipping by the Tennessee Titans, 28-24. Seattle was missing three of their defensive backs due to injury and Titans quarterback Steve McNair took advantage of the situation to keep his team in the game.
With the Colts no longer having anything special to play for next weekend, it'll be interesting to see how long Head Coach Tony Dungy opts to play his starters next week. Seattle, who clinched a first-round bye with their victory today, would still be trying to gain home field advantage throughout the playoffs unless the Bears lose to the Falcons Sunday night. Should that happen, neither team will have a high motivation to play their starters for an extended period on Christmas Eve other than to give them enough playing time to stay sharp heading into the playoffs.