Posted: 9:15 p.m.
INDIANAPOLIS - A funny thing happened on the way to Foxboro.
"I haven't been growing this beard for nothing," said Chargers right guard Mike Goff of his team's latest hair-raising playoff matchup with the seemingly unbeatable Patriots, this time in next Sunday's AFC championship game.
This is why they play the games.
This is why Michael Turner kept cooling his jets and Drayton Florence kept his cool and Goff kept just keeping on keeping on in Sunday's 28-24 victory that Goff summed up best.
"To have your backup quarterback, your backup running back, your backup tight end, and to go out and win in this hostile environment against the Super Bowl champs," said Goff, the former Bengal in his fourth and most satisfying season in San Diego. "It's special. It's the most special moment in my 10 years."
The '07 Chargers offered a lesson for the '08 Bengals, stunning the raucous RCA Dome into silence on the day its doors shut for good and subduing one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time in Peyton Manning.
Yes, there is life after implosion. See it's not just a Bengals word. After last year's crushing late playoff loss to New England, then losing three of its first four games this season, and getting drilled by injuries (sound familiar?), implosion became part of the San Diego lexicon.
"We overcame things today that we weren't able to overcome at home last year," said Goff of this playoff game last year that the Chargers blew in the fourth quarter. "We kept plugging away. Coach (Norv) Turner always is saying, 'Never blink,' and we didn't."
They could have shut their eyes when LaDainian Tomlinson, the running back of the decade, went out with a bruised knee late in the first half with just 28 yards on seven carries as tight end of the decade Antonio Gates struggled on what fullback Lorenzo Neal called "half a toe."
(And Neal, another former Bengal, didn't play at all with a broken fibula.)
They could have chucked it after the last play of the third quarter, when quarterback Phillip Rivers wrenched his knee throwing his third touchdown pass of the day on a 56-yard screen pass to mighty mite Darren Sproles.
Or they could have ditched it after Manning did what he could only do once all day and hit the Chargers deep for a 55-yard touchdown pass down the sideline to rookie wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez that gave Indy a 24-21 lead with 10:07 left in the game.
But when Turner looked in the huddle and saw backup quarterback Billy Volek and a rookie from Boise State who plays both tight end and wide receiver in Legedu Naanee, he shrugged.
"It was like practice. We switch in and out in practice," Turner said. "LaDainian and Phillip don't take every snap. That's what it felt like to me."
Volek engineered the winning points, an eight-play, 78-yard drive in which he completed three of his four passes for 48 yards and finished it off with a one-yard touchdown sneak for the sixth and final lead change of the game with 4:50 left.
Turner, on his way to a career-high 17 carries for 71 yards, carried three times for 14 yards, slightly below the quietest 5.5 yards per carry career average he brought into the game over four NFL seasons.
"I think people know I'm an every down back," said Turner, who'll find out for sure on the free-agent market this March. "But I think I solidified that this week.
"When people go down on this team, the rest are expected to pick it up."
Calm. Matter of fact. Turner mirrored his teammates in a locker room that has been hardened by adversity. The Pats' knockout of San Diego despite the Chargers being the AFC's first seed at 14-2 last year. Coach Marty Schottenheimer's bizarre departure. Turner's struggles as the Chargers stumbled to a 5-5 start.
"That's what professionals do. They grow up. They learn and they build off mistakes," said Florence, the fifth-year cornerback who knows better than most. "That's what is helping us now. We know this is what we have to do keep advancing."
It was Florence's horrendous head butt in the third quarter that aided the Pats' victory last year, a play he has had to drag around for a year and one that will be replayed incessantly this week.
"That's the thing about being a defensive back. You have to have short-term memory. Albert Haynesworth came into our place last week and had a costly personal foul on a drive we scored a touchdown," Florence said of the Tennessee defensive tackle. "You learn from it. It's called being a professional."
So this time, with the game on the line, Florence was there waiting. On fourth-and-five from the Colts 37 with 1:03 left, Florence defended a pass headed for tight end Dallas Clark. After the touchdown pass to Gonzalez, Manning missed six of his last seven passes against Florence and Co.
"When we show a two-man shell (zone coverage), they check it to Dallas Clark running an out route," Florence said. "He tries to use his body like we do with Antonio Gates and body up on the DB. I knew he was running an out route. I just got up under him. It had to be a perfect throw and catch."
Goff had his moment of poise in what might have been the biggest drive of the game, the Chargers' first touchdown slog of 10 plays that kept the ball from Manning for 7:16 and tied the game at seven and served notice we were going to be here all day.
With noise engulfing the place, Goff false-started twice within 28 seconds, the last one putting the ball on the 14 and Rivers saving him with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson on third-and-eight.
"I can't remember having two offsides in a season, let alone the same game on the same drive," Goff said. "I just sat there. 'C'mon Mike. You can't do that. Especially on the road in this environment.' "
Then Goff saved everybody between his false starts when Tomlinson shocked the world and fumbled at the end of an eight-yard run at the Colts 9. Goff not only jumped on it, but thought he had a shot to score until the refs blew it dead.
"I've watched a lot of rugby. I kind of saw it in there and I thought I got it out clean," Goff said. "I'd just figured I'd walk in. It was just lying there and everybody was looking at it. I figured while I'm down there I might as well try and pick it up. I thought I'd get my first career touchdown."
"I got one on Madden once," he said. "That was pretty cool."
But Goff and his linemates were no joke in space when the Chargers burned the Colts' quicksilver pursuing linebackers on screen passes to Tomlinson (his biggest play of the day on a 20-yarder), the touchdown to Sproles, and a 27-yarder to Naanee on the final drive that set up the last four runs.
"I was just tired running down there and waiting," said Goff, who was on the front side getting his 300 pounds in the way.
(By the way, the 5-6, 180-pound Sproles didn't need anybody in front of him. He was gone on the perimeter because nobody got there in time.)
"If you want to call it athleticism," said Pro Bowl center Nick Hardwick of the screens. "(We're) just not trying to look stupid."
Hardwick and Rivers looked stupid on one play they couldn't get going because of the noise, but Volek, curiously, didn't have a problem coming in cold.
"Maybe it's a good thing it's so loud. You couldn't hear the difference in the cadence," Goff said. "You just kind of had to keep one eye on your defender and one eye on the ball. I don't think it made much of a difference."
They did have to get used to hearing Volek above the din.
"You could see our heads getting closer in the huddle," Goff said. "If you didn't hear it, you asked the guy next to you or your buddy."
They were glad they had Turner next to him. The joke during the season had been how Chargers general manager A.J. Smith had made him the NFL's most expensive insurance policy by giving him the biggest one-year tender for a restricted free agent at $2.3 million.
"A.J. looks like the smartest guy in the NFL," Turner said. "He cashed it in today."
So did Goff, who finally got his 10-year chips in a conference championship game.
Even if it is against the unbeaten Patriots at home.
"How good are they?" he was asked.
"That may be," said Goff, "the stupidest question I've ever heard."
But then, who would have known Billy Volek would outduel Peyton Manning in the fourth quarter, Burner Turner would outrush LT, and Mike Goff would make more big plays with the ball than Antonio Gates, and the Chargers would beat the Super Bowl champs.
"Yeah," said Goff, "I did think I'd seen it all. But this ... "
That's why they play the games.