Chargers' defense has statement game

Antoine Cason had one of four San Diego interceptions in the Chargers' win over the Colts. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- All due respect to the great Peyton Manning, but this game wasn’t about him.

This was about the NFL’s top-ranked defense, which hasn’t been getting much notice. Whether it was because of the 2-5 start or the elastic unit’s penchant for giving up the occasional big play and long scoring drive, the San Diego Chargers’ defense had been overlooked.

It can’t be any longer. This was a look-at-us game by the San Diego defense, which stifled Manning, causing him to have one of his worst NFL days.

“This game was about us, and what we are doing,” said San Diego safety Eric Weddle, whose 41-yard interception return for a touchdown gave the Chargers a 12-point lead in the third quarter and was the turning point of a 36-14 San Diego win.

“We all know that Peyton Manning is one of the best all-time and we respect him greatly. But all we heard going into this game was Peyton and how we couldn’t’ stop him. When are they going to start talking about our secondary? When are they going to start talking about the No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL? This is a great defense, but nobody noticed … It was a slap in the face.”

Sunday night, though, Manning was the one who was hammered in the face.

The story of the Chargers’ extremely easy victory was their continued mastery of Manning. But this one was special. Manning, who completed 31 of 48 passes for 285 mostly meaningless yards, was intercepted four times. San Diego linebacker Kevin Burnett gave the Chargers a 10-7 late in the first quarter on a 29-yard interception return. Manning is now 1-13 in games in which he has thrown at least three interceptions.

“We played our defense,” San Diego cornerback Antoine Cason said. “We know how good he is. But it was about us staying in our defense. Let’s play our game and see what happens.”

What happened Sunday night was that the Chargers showed the rest of the AFC that they are a legitimate playoff threat again heading into December, which, by the way, is a month in which starting quarterback Philip Rivers has never lost a game in four seasons as a starter. The Chargers aren’t bad in November either. This was San Diego’s eighth straight November win.

The Chargers are 6-5, winners of four straight games after starting 2-5. The four-time defending AFC West champions trail Kansas City (7-4) by one game in the AFC West. The Chargers leapfrogged Oakland (5-6) for second place.

The Chargers are in fine shape heading toward the stretch run. They play three straight games at home over 11 days, beginning Sunday against the Raiders. The Chiefs and 49ers follow.

Sunday night’s dominant road performance showed San Diego is ready for December.

It all started with the strong play against Manning. Manning is 1-5 against the Chargers in his past six meetings, including a six-interception performance in 2007. The Chargers were nearly as dominant in this game.

Led by defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who should be a head-coaching candidate in January, San Diego’s defense took over after allowing Manning to cruise down the field on the opening drive of the game. Weddle said the Chargers started to play “smart” after the opening drive.

You've got to love brain power.

“They got after us tonight,” Manning said. “They executed their defense better than we did our offense.”

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Manning struggled on throws of 10 yards or more. He was 3-of-15 in pass attempts of 11 yards or longer with a passer rating of 5.8. In Manning's famous three- and four-receiver sets, San Diego buckled down. All four of San Diego’s interceptions came in those sets.

Several Chargers said the key to their success against Manning was making him uncomfortable. While San Diego had only one sack, Manning was hurried routinely.

“You keep him in the pocket and he will pick you apart,” said San Diego linebacker Shaun Phillips, who sacked Manning for his 10th sack of the season. “We kept pressure on him.”

While the San Diego defense was the star of the night, Phillips said it was a complete team effort. The Chargers' offense and special teams ensured that Manning rarely started in good field position.

San Diego’s offense scored one touchdown, half as many as its defense. The Chargers had to settle for five Nate Kaeding field goals.

Another big development was that San Diego's special-teams play -- a disaster in the first nine games -- was strong for the second straight week. San Diego coach Norv Turner said he gave a game ball to the kick coverage unit and said the improvement was "dramatic.”

Nothing, though, was more dramatic Sunday night than San Diego’s complete ownership of Manning.

“We showed who we are,” Weddle said. “We showed how good this defense is against a great player.”