INDIANAPOLIS -- In the fourth quarter of their divisional playoff game against Indianapolis, the San Diego Chargers lined up for their most important drive in 13 years with Billy Volek playing quarterback and Michael Turner at running back.
Philip Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson had been reduced to cheerleaders by knee injuries. Antonio Gates was playing, but hobbled by a bum toe. The Colts, defending Super Bowl champs, had just gone ahead, Peyton Manning was on his way to a 402-yard passing day, and the crowd for the final game at the RCA Dome was going insanely wild.
In this maelstrom, what the Chargers needed most was a steady hand, and it turned out they had one all along.
The Chargers will play the AFC Championship Game at New England next Sunday, and both Tomlinson (left knee) and Rivers (right knee) said they promised to do whatever they could to get back onto the field. Both players said they could have returned to the game against the Colts if they had to, but that may just have been macho talk, because they did not.
Tomlinson also said his knee stiffened a bit when he tried to return after leaving in the second quarter. Rivers went out after the third quarter and, by the time he felt ready to come back in, the Chargers were in run-out-the-clock mode.
Before the injury, which occurred as Rivers threw a screen pass that 5-foot-6 Darren Sproles took 56 yards for a touchdown, he had continued his streak of terrific playoff work, exceeding even the second-half performance that beat Tennessee a week earlier. He completed 14 of 19 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns and posted a passer rating of 133.2.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether Tomlinson and Rivers can be ready next week -- and whether the Chargers can continue a late-season run that now has extended to eight straight victories.
But San Diego clearly is a different team from the one that New England crushed in September, 38-14, part of a 1-3 and 5-5 start by the Chargers that led critics to pile derision on first-year coach Norv Turner, who had been fired from previous head-coaching jobs at Washington and Oakland with losing records.
Suddenly Turner now stands on the precipice of pro football history. No man, on his third NFL head-coaching job, ever reached the Super Bowl for the first time. It turns out that Turner's low-key approach served San Diego well.
"He brought a sense of confidence, kind of a relaxed feel," Tomlinson said. "To me he seems never to get up-tight. He just seems to have a sense about him that makes everybody take a deep breath, that 'We'll be fine.'"
And they were.
With Indianapolis leading, 24-21, Volek, the very definition of a journeyman -- a 31-year-old, eight-year veteran with only 10 starts on his résumé and who never before had been in a playoff game, completed three consecutive passes. Michael Turner, Tomlinson's backup for four years, then ran on three straight plays for 14 yards before Volek scored what proved to be the winning touchdown on a 1-yard quarterback sneak with 4:50 remaining.
"No one put their head down . . . Our guys just kept fighting."
The biggest completion on the winning drive, for 27 yards, went to third-string tight end Legedu Naanee, a rookie fifth-round draft choice who was part of the Boise State team that shocked Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl a year ago.
As someone said afterward, the lineup on the winning drive seemed more appropriate for an exhibition game in August, not a divisional playoff.
"We've got some (good) young guys," Turner said. "Legedu Naanee's a good example. I've talked about him, and people look like I'm crazy."
This was one of the best games of the NFL postseason even though both teams made plenty of mistakes. It featured five lead changes, a game-high 71 rushing yards by Turner, an Antonio Cromartie interception return for an apparent Chargers touchdown called back on a questionable penalty, some very uncharacteristic mistakes by the Colts, a 66-yard punt by San Diego's Mike Scifres at the most important time, and two monster fourth-down stops orchestrated by Chargers linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips in the closing moments.
In short, it had a little of everything, including, perhaps, a farewell from Colts coach Tony Dungy, who said only that he would "sit down with my wife and talk with Jim (Irsay, the team's owner) and we will come to a conclusion." For sure, at least, it was a farewell for the RCA Dome; next fall, the Colts move into a new stadium being built just to the South of the old one.
"It is certainly disappointing," said Manning, who had two chances to rally the Colts after Volek's touchdown.
But "they made the defensive plays to win when it counted," Dungy said.
The first came after Manning drove Indy to the 9-yard line. After a 2-yard run by Joseph Addai, Manning threw three consecutive incomplete passes, the last under intense pressure from Merriman with 2:01 remaining.
The second came with 1:03 remaining, after a San Diego three-and-out followed by Scifres' 66-yard punt, "his best punt of the year," Rivers said. It forced Indianapolis to begin its final drive from its own 32-yard line. On 4th-and-5, Phillips did something he hadn't done the entire game -- pass-rushing on the inside instead of the outside, and beating Colts right tackle Ryan Diem, which flushed Manning out of the pocket and forced a hurried throw, which Dallas Clark dropped.
Indianapolis, which lost a regular-season game at San Diego in which Manning threw six interceptions, thought it could reverse that because so many players who missed that game due to injuries were returning. But one of them, Marvin Harrison, fumbled the ball away the first time he touched it, and wound up unable to finish the game.
It also was a sour end for Manning, who completed his first 14 passes and finished 33 of 48 passes for the 402 yards but threw two interceptions and twice failed to get points on drives inside the San Diego 10-yard line.
It's just the opposite, of course, for the rebounding Chargers. To a man, players insisted they never lost after struggling early under Turner. Merriman said it was simply a matter of adjustment, "of everybody trying to get on the same page."
"I think we're probably keeping our poise a little bit," Merriman said. "Last year, when we were in tough situations, we kind of backed up a little bit, thinking too much about winning or losing the game instead of just going out there and playing."
What's facing San Diego now is the ultimate open-book exam, but the Chargers think they are finally ready for it.
"The way we're playing now, nothing can stop us," said defensive tackle Igor Olshansky. "The way that we overcame adversity and everything else, I guarantee you that (Patriots coach Bill) Belichick and everybody else over there are scratching their heads saying, 'Man, we better get ready.' "
Veteran NFL writer Ira Miller is a regular contributor to NFL.com.