Rivers' development the biggest difference in San Diego

SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego Chargers are right back where they were a year ago, headed into a divisional playoff game. But somehow this feels different.

Perhaps it's because they just won a playoff game for the first time in 13 years.

Perhaps it's because they're going to play Indianapolis, a team they beat the last two times they played.

Perhaps it's because their young quarterback, Philip Rivers, finally played a big game at a big time to beat a defense that was putting all its attention on stopping LaDainian Tomlinson and daring Rivers to win the game with his arm.

Or, perhaps, it's all of the above.

But we'll go mostly with No. 3, because that's the biggest development.

On Sunday, the Chargers beat the Tennessee Titans 17-6. The Titans were missing four starters because of recent injuries, and their quarterback, Vince Young, was missing some of his mobility due to a quad injury.

So beating them, perhaps, was no big deal. It was expected. The unexpected part was how the Chargers did it.

"We executed our game plan," said Tennessee linebacker Keith Bulluck. "We wanted Philip Rivers to beat us. I think he did a good job of that."

"I think that's been the (defensive) strategy for 34 games that I've been here, and I don't think that strategy is going to change as long as (Tomlinson) is here," Rivers said.

True enough, and the only way the Chargers can change that approach by their opponents is for Rivers to have more games like this one.

With San Diego trailing 6-0 at halftime and with Tomlinson limited to 6 yards on his first seven carries, Rivers directed drives of 86, 78 and 72 yards on the Chargers' first three possessions of the second half. After halftime, he completed 12 of 17 passes for 194 yards. He finished with 292 yards, including five completions of at least 25 yards.

That's quite a change from some other games. In September, when the Patriots limited Tomlinson to 43 yards on 18 carries, Rivers threw two interceptions. When Minnesota held Tomlinson to 40 yards in November, Rivers completed only 19 of 42 passes. When Jacksonville held Tomlinson to 62 yards, Rivers threw two interceptions.

Even in a regular-season victory over Indianapolis, Rivers had a passer rating of 30.6. And in last year's playoff loss to New England, he completed only 14 of 32 passes and had a passer rating of 55.5.

Sunday's rating: 92.6.

Now, this hardly means the Chargers will go pass-crazy against the Colts; that would be foolish. They'll try to control the game with Tomlinson to keep the ball out of Peyton Manning's hands, just as the Titans wanted to keep it from Tomlinson and put the game in Rivers' hands.

But now that Rivers, caught on camera trash-talking during a Christmas Eve victory against Denver, has had a game to match his psyche, well, the Chargers believe they have options.

"The thing that stood out in my mind from Philip was his poise today," said Tomlinson, who finally got going in the fourth quarter and finished with 42 yards on 21 carries.

As significant a step as this was for Rivers, it was just as big for Norv Turner, the San Diego coach. Turner was hired last February after the Chargers fired Marty Schottenheimer, despite a 14-2 season, because of a divisional playoff loss to New England, as well as philosohical differences with Chargers general manager A.J. Smith.

Then, as San Diego got off to a 5-5 start under Turner, fans booed him and chanted "Marty" at home games. But now the Chargers have won seven games in a row, and perhaps that history explains why Turner was somewhat red-eyed when he faced the media after the game.

"It was probably the rain," he explained.

Yeah, right.

"Norv was brought here in an odd situation," Tomlinson said. "It was either get us back to the playoffs and win a game in the playoffs, or you're a failure. That was kind of what he was given. ... I felt like he was getting the wrong end of the stick. Even early on, when people started booing him and yelling, 'Marty,' that was kind of unfair to him. He was a bit emotional."

Yet, as big as this victory was for the Chargers, it guarantees them nothing but where they were a year ago. In fact, they're not even in as strong a position because last year's divisional playoff against the Patriots was at home, and they must travel to Indianapolis to face the Colts.

They might be without tight end Antonio Gates, who left Sunday's game late in the first half with what was believed to be a dislocated toe, and did not return. In his absence, however, two wideouts, Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson, both had more than 100 yards receiving.

There is no telling how the Chargers-Colts game will unfold because the two straight San Diego victories in the series have been so radically different. Plus, time has passed and teams change.

"We're a physical team, and we've improved in the areas we need to get better," Turner said. "We've improved our pass coverage. We're a lot better in our pass defense than this team has been. We're a lot better passing team. Those combinations of things will help us."

In 2005, the Colts were 13-0 before the Chargers beat them at Indianapolis, 26-17, coming from behind in the fourth quarter and piling up 453 yards on offense, including 206 rushing. In that game, San Diego controlled the time of possession by nine minutes.

In this season's game, the Chargers intercepted Peyton Manning six times and still needed Adam Vinatieri to miss a 29-yard field goal with 1:31 remaining to survive, 23-21 at home, even though the Colts had a 12 ½ minute advantage in time of possession.

"The (last) game was kind of a weird game," Tomlinson said. "It's going to be much different this time, playing at their place. They don't lose much at their place. It's going to be loud, and dealing with Peyton Manning, you just never know."

And, the Chargers hope, the same now can be said of their quarterback.

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