Chargers make big plays at the right time

Tim Heitman/US Presswire

Philip Rivers' eight play, 75-yard touchdown drive changed the momentum against the Cowboys.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- This game can be cruel.

The Dallas Cowboys had just lost one of their leaders when DeMarcus Ware was taken off the field on a stretcher with a neck injury. The entire team -- many of whom huddled around Ware while he was being attended to -- was clearly shaken.

But the game had to go on. And the first sequence without Ware was the time when the team needed the superb pass-rusher the most. It was third down and 12 for San Diego from its 47 with the score tied 10-10. Dallas had just taken the momentum away from San Diego with a 99-yard touchdown drive.

The Chargers took advantage. Great teams do, and San Diego is playing at an extremely high level these days.

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who is working his way into the league MVP chatter, found receiver Vincent Jackson for a 39-yard reception down the San Diego sideline to the Dallas 14. On the next play, Rivers hit tight end Antonio Gates for an easy touchdown pass play to give the Chargers a sudden 17-10 lead.

The Cowboys couldn't recover. San Diego added an insurance field goal right after the two-minute warning on a devastating seven-plus minute drive, sealing an impressive 20-17 win over the Cowboys.

After the game, the Chargers downplayed how the game turned after Ware was hurt. San Diego was clearly being respectful toward Ware and the Cowboys, and many players expressed concern.

“Those particular plays [the two plays after Ware left] were not called for him not being in there,” Rivers said.

Added Jackson: “We just made the plays when we had to. That’s all it was.”

But the bottom line was the Chargers had their opportunity to strike and they did.

San Diego is playing as well as any team in the NFL outside of Indianapolis or New Orleans. It’s unlikely the Colts or the Saints would be thrilled to see San Diego on their schedule these days. It’s a notion that could become a reality for the Colts in the postseason.

San Diego is 10-3 and has won eight straight games. San Diego has won an NFL-record 16 straight games in December, dating back to 2006.

Sunday was a perfect day for San Diego. The Chargers won and Denver, the second-place team in the AFC West, and Cincinnati, the Chargers’ competition for the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs, both lost. San Diego has a two-game lead on Denver with three games to go in the division and it leads Cincinnati by a game in the chase for the No. 2 seed.

San Diego plays host to Cincinnati next week.

Getting the No. 2 seed would be pivotal for the Chargers. All they’d need to do to get back to the AFC Championship Game for the second time in three years would be to win one home playoff game. The Colts are going to be the No. 1 seed. But San Diego isn’t going to be frightened to play the Colts in January. San Diego has knocked the Colts out of the playoffs the past two seasons.

Other key factors in the Chargers’ win:

San Diego spreads the wealth: Jackson made the play of the game with the 39-yard catch on third and long. You knew it was coming. He’s too productive not to come up big. After a hot start to the season, Jackson was held to eight catches the past three games. But he came alive Sunday with seven catches for 120 yards.

When Jackson’s production had fallen, Rivers relied on Gates. He had 15 catches for 285 yards and two touchdowns in the past two games. Sunday, Gates had four catches for 44 yards.

“That’s how this offense works,” Gates said. “We go to the hot guy. There are so many weapons on this offense everyone is going to get their turn.”

Rivers did another masterful job of engineering the multi-faceted San Diego passing game. He threw for 272 yards on 21-of-32 passing.

San Diego's defense comes up big when it counts: The Cowboys were on the doorstep of tying the score 10-10 early in the second quarter, using the run to drive down the field.

Dallas moved 72 yards in 12 plays (11 of which were runs) to the San Diego 1. Then the door was closed in the Cowboys' face.

The Chargers’ run defense has been vulnerable for much of the season. But it tightened when it had to.

Dallas running back Marion Barber was stopped on three straight plays from the 1 as San Diego forced Dallas to turn the ball over on downs. The Chargers were shocked that Barber, out of the fullback position on fourth down, ran the same play three times in a row. He gained three yards from the four on first down.

"I don't know what they were thinking but after the second time you gotta think, 'Don't run that play no more,''' Chargers linebacker Tim Dobbins said. "I don't know if they watched film or what.

"In our mind, we knew he wasn't blocking. We knew he had to get the ball. He's not getting paid to block. Everybody knows that, everybody in the stands knew that. We knew it was going to be a flip or a dive, one or the other. I don't know what they were thinking.”

While Dallas stumbled when it counted, San Diego made plays when it had to. Just like great teams do in December.