With Tomlinson out, Sproles looms large

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

SAN DIEGO -- The formula to end the Indianapolis Colts' nine-game winning streak?

Apparently, it starts with a 5-foot-6, 181-pound tailback and a punter.


This is the 2008 San Diego Chargers we're talking about. They were the only team in NFL history to qualify for the playoffs after starting 4-8 and the first 8-8 division winner in 23 years.

The Chargers are used to doing it the hard way.

"We belong, we belong," San Diego linebacker Stephen Cooper bellowed after the Chargers beat the Colts 23-17 in overtime Saturday night. "I don't think there are any more doubts."

There have been doubts about Darren Sproles his entire career. Before this season, he said nobody thought he belonged way back in his pee-wee playing days when he was even more of a pee-wee than the rest of the players.

Sproles is as big as anyone in San Diego right now after scoring on a 22-yard touchdown run in overtime to put the Chargers in the divisional playoffs. San Diego has won five straight games.

With future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson sidelined in the second half, it was Sproles who shouldered the load for San Diego. Known as a terrific change-of-pace back and a premier return man, Sproles took the role of bell-cow back in the most crucial time of the season. Sproles accounted for 328 all-purpose yards, the third most in NFL playoff history.

"He came up big," San Diego fullback Jacob Hester said. "He plays a lot bigger than he is."

Sproles had 105 yards on 23 carries. He had 114 yards rushing last week against Denver. There is a strong chance Sproles will be needed for big yardage again next week. After the game, Tomlinson, who has a groin injury he suffered last week, would not commit either way when asked if he would be ready in the next round. He had five carries for 25 yards before it was decided he couldn't play any longer.

"Sometimes, you have to trust your guys," Tomlinson said.

It was a good call on Sproles. However, Sproles did make a crucial mistake. While running hard to the goal line late in the third quarter for what would be a go-ahead touchdown, Sproles fumbled into the end zone. He called his game-winning touchdown a makeup. Sproles, who is sure to be attractive on the open market as a free agent this offseason, more than made up for his blunder.

While Sproles was an unlikely workhorse, the Chargers received other heroic efforts. None may have been bigger than punter Mike Scifres.

The Charges controlled the field-position battle on Scifres' leg. All six of his punts went inside the Colts' 20, the first time in playoff history a punter had six punts go inside the 20. Scifres pinned Indianapolis inside its 10-yard line three times, including the 1-yard line on the Colts' final possession of the game, which led to a San Diego field goal that tied the score in the final seconds of regulation and sent the game to overtime.

"Best punter in the league," San Diego receiver Chris Chambers said.

While Sproles and Scifres, two of San Diego's role players, had big games, one star gutted it out and was a major contributor. Like Tomlinson, tight end Antonio Gates didn't practice all week after being injured against Denver. He had suffered a high ankle sprain.

He had his foot in a walking boot all week. Some in the Chargers' organization didn't know if he would be able to play. But Gates had a game-high eight catches for 87 yards. He caught Philip Rivers' first five completions.

Here are some other key elements to the Chargers' win:

Stopping Manning: A day after he won his third NFL MVP award, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning got his numbers. He threw for 310 yards on 25 of 42 passing. But he didn't control the game.

The Chargers' defense did.

"You hold the Colts to 17 points and you take that any time," San Diego safety Eric Weddle said. "We clamped down when we needed to. We made some big plays."

None was bigger than the Colts' final offensive play of the season. It was the only time Manning was sacked. San Diego pressured him often but it saved its one sack for most crucial of times. San Diego linebacker Tim Dobbins crushed Manning on third-and-2 from the Colts' nine with 2:30 to play in the fourth quarter. San Diego was out of time outs. The game would have been all but over had the Colts gotten the first down.

"We got him when we needed to," Dobbins said.

Overtime: The Chargers won the coin flip when it turned up tails. The Colts called heads.
The Chargers never gave up the ball and were helped by three Colts penalties on the 11-play, 75-yard drive.

Riding high: After their slow start, the Chargers are now the dangerous Super Bowl contender they were expected to be.

Neither the Pittsburgh Steelers nor the Tennessee Titans would be thrilled to meet this team. Pittsburgh won in the final seconds at home against San Diego in November and the Chargers beat the Titans twice in 2007, including in the playoffs.

San Diego is playing as well as any team in the league right now. And Saturday's play from players such as Sproles and Scifres showed it is a total team effort.