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Turner validates hiring, has Chargers in AFC title game

INDIANAPOLIS -- Norv Turner resisted the temptation to gloat.

After all, Sunday was not a day for personal satisfaction. San Diego is headed to the AFC championship game, and the coach hired because predecessor Marty Schottenheimer couldn't get the Chargers there preferred to talk about a team's redemption.

"There's been a mind-set in our league that our guys are front-runners and when it gets tough or real challenging that they don't rise to the occasion," Turner said after the Chargers overcame injuries, crucial penalties and other mistakes to beat defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis 28-24 in the divisional playoffs.

"I think we've put that thing to rest. I think that one's done forever. We've got some guys who compete and fight, and scratch and claw, as good as I've been around. I told them in the locker room I've been doing this a long time. I've never been around a more gutsy performance by a team."

Much-maligned during unsuccessful stints with the Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders, Turner was a surprising choice to replace Schottenheimer after the former coach failed to win in the divisional playoffs.

Turner faced more criticism when the Chargers, who won 14 games under Schottenheimer in 2006, got off to a 1-3 start this season. The team regrouped to win 10 of its last 12 in the regular season, including six in a row down the stretch to clinch the AFC West.

Eleven wins and another division title weren't enough to validate the decision to hire Turner, though.

He finally did that by guiding the Chargers to their first playoff victory in 13 years -- a 17-6 win over Tennessee in the wild-card round -- and dethroning the Colts on Sunday.

"We've talked all along, we want to play our best game in January," Turner said, looking ahead to next Sunday's AFC title game at unbeaten New England. "Hopefully we still have our best game in us."

The Chargers will take an eight-game winning streak to Foxborough. They beat the Colts despite playing most of the game without league rushing champion LaDainian Tomlinson and the fourth quarter without quarterback Phillip Rivers, both leaving with knee injuries .

San Diego also overcame several penalties Turner didn't agree with, including a holding call on Eric Weddle that cost the Chargers a touchdown by Antonio Cromartie on an 89-yard interception return in the closing seconds of the first half.

An incensed Turner ran onto the field to protest the call.

"I'm just like everybody else," the coach said. "I'm out there competing hard."

Tomlinson, who bruised his left knee in the second quarter and did not return, said Turner brought a "sense of confidence and kind of a relaxed feeling" that the Chargers have embraced.

"To me, he never seems to get uptight. ... Sometimes during a week leading up to a big game, you can sense the coach is uptight. I've never sensed that with Norv," Tomlinson said. "I guess because he's so silly. He always seems to say something to lighten everybody up. ... I think it fits good with our team."

Turner said he never doubted himself or his assistants when the Chargers got off to a sluggish start, losing three straight to New England, Green Bay and Kansas City after beating Chicago in the opener.

Linebacker Shawne Merriman said it simply took a while for the players to mesh with the new coach and his staff.

"I believe everybody deserves a fresh start, regardless of what he's done or where he's been," Merriman said.

"There are guys who probably aren't performing as well with another team and (go) to another team and start performing. You say, 'What was wrong with him before?' Well, he's in a new environment, a new situation, new surroundings. I believe that's probably a big part of it."

Cornerback Drayton Florence agreed.

"Anytime you can take over a team that went 14-2, the expectations are high. When you don't start out like everybody wants you to, everybody wants to throw you under the bus and jump off the bandwagon," Florence said.

"We just believe in what we do in-house. As long as everybody stays together, the coach has done a great job of adjusting to the personnel we have and how to call the plays that fit our team. ... It takes time to find your niche, but we've come together."

And it couldn't have come at a better time.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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