INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- After handing New England a huge gift, the San Diego Chargers believe it's time to give the unbeaten Patriots something else: a challenge.
And, oh yeah, a loss.
By stunning Peyton Manning and the defending champion Colts 28-24 on Sunday, undermanned San Diego removed New England's biggest road block to the Super Bowl. Not that the Chargers are intimidated by facing the 17-0 Patriots in the AFC title game next weekend.
"Seventeen have tried and it hasn't happened," Rivers said of New England's perfect record. "We think it can happen."
But San Diego must avoid a repeat of its last performance at New England, when it was routed 38-14 in Week 2. That was the beginning of a slide to 5-5 for San Diego, but the Chargers (13-5) are rolling now.
"A lot has happened since then," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "We'll definitely start all over on the preparations. It's like it's a new team."
Also an undermanned team. L.T. departed in the first half with a bruised left knee, and Rivers went out in the third quarter with a damaged right knee. Both said they hoped to be ready for the Patriots, and coach Norv Turner said they are "questionable."
"That's the true measure of a team," Tomlinson said. "Guys stepped up and got it done."
Those guys included Billy Volek at quarterback and Michael Turner as the main runner. Led by those subs, San Diego went 78 yards on eight plays, with Volek sneaking in from the 1 with 4:50 remaining for the lead. The Chargers' big-play defense then held on downs at its 7, and stopped Indy again in the final moments to preserve their eighth straight win.
To make it nine in a row and advance to their second Super Bowl -- the other was a loss to San Francisco after the 1994 season -- the Chargers will need all that resourcefulness again.
"I'm pretty sure we'll be huge underdogs, but it's still going to be fun, just to get the opportunity," Tomlinson said. "All the rest of the teams have had their opportunity to play New England, and we'll get another opportunity to do so in the AFC Championship Game. What a better way to go back there."
For the Colts (13-4), it was a bitterly quick elimination from the postseason.
A year ago, they won three playoff games, then beat Chicago in the Super Bowl. They couldn't recapture their touch on offense or defense this time.
"What happened last year doesn't make it any easier this year," Manning said. "When you come back and commit yourself to the '07 season and you don't finish it like you want to, it hurts."
A defense that allowed the fewest points during the season wore down against the equally physical Chargers. Still, the Colts went in front 24-21 when Anthony Gonzalez slipped past Marlon McCree down the left sideline to complete a 55-yard scoring play with 10:07 to go. The Chargers challenged that Gonzalez stepped out of bounds at about the 25, but the play stood.
"When you have so many weapons, you don't have to do anything special," Volek said. "It was not like the game was out of reach. I had to go out there and fill my role."
Manning did throw for 402 yards, completing 33 of his 48 throws, but both interceptions killed deep scoring threats.
With All-Pro cornerback Antonio Cromartie getting an interception and fumble recovery, and linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips plaguing Manning, the Chargers showed they have the ability to throw off any offense. Maybe even the most prolific attack in NFL history next Sunday.
It was a gutty showing by Rivers, who threw for three scores -- he banged his right knee on a 56-yard screen pass TD by Darren Sproles to end the third quarter. And Turner, who could be a starter elsewhere but usually sits behind league rushing leader Tomlinson, rushed for 71 yards.
The Chargers' opportunistic defense, which led the league in takeaways (48) and turnover margin (plus-24), grabbed two interceptions -- both on tipped balls -- and a fumble. While San Diego couldn't stop Manning's offense from steadily marching downfield most of the game, it could make the key plays that get you closer to the Super Bowl.
Still, if Tomlinson is limited or sidelined, how much chance do the Chargers have against the perfect Patriots? Not to mention perhaps missing Rivers or tight end Antonio Gates, who courageously played much of the day on a dislocated toe.
Belichick dismissed the injuries.
"We're prepared for everybody," he said. "As we saw today, any number of players could be in the game."
Rivers was 14-of-19 for 264 yards, and Volek went 3-of-4 for 48 yards in his clutch relief role. Vincent Jackson became Rivers' top target with Gates struggling, and had seven catches for 93 yards and a score.
Indianapolis lost only six fumbles all season, but Harrison, who hadn't been hit in almost three months while sidelined by a knee injury, was stripped on his first reception by Cromartie. McCree recovered at the San Diego 22, stymying a lengthy drive begun with Kelvin Hayden's interception.
San Diego capitalized with a 78-yard march, including three third-down conversions. Jackson beat double-coverage for his 14-yard score on third down, making it 7-7.
The first Indy scoring series was vintage Manning. He picked apart the Chargers with short timing throws to Joseph Addai and Reggie Wayne, who picked up 8 yards on a fourth-and-2 at the San Diego 37. Two plays later, tight end Dallas Clark used a double fake on Clinton Hart for a 25-yard touchdown catch.
Indy went on top 10-7 on Adam Vinatieri's season-best 47-yard field goal, then the Chargers, now minus L.T., got to the Colts 31 behind Turner, who gained 25 yards on the march. But Nate Kaeding's 48-yard field goal try bounced off the right upright.
In the final seconds of the half, Manning's high pass was tipped by Wayne and picked off by Cromartie, the league leader in interceptions. He got several blocks, including one on Manning, in running it back to the end zone, but a block by Eric Weddle was ruled holding, negating the long touchdown.
Norv Turner was livid at the call on Weddle, berating the officials after what appeared a simple legal push by Weddle, who also had the other San Diego interception. ... During Wayne's 9-yard sideline reception on which he dived to the pylon, he was initially ruled out-of-bounds. He was given the touchdown after the Colts challenged. ... Rivers also found Chris Chambers with a 30-yard TD pass to open the second half.
- Gerald Austin