Saturday, January 3, 2009

Endgame - Colts vs. Chargers

Time constraints have me holding off on individual team reviews until we’ve pared down the competition next week. Still, we’ll be taking a look at the upcoming games this weekend, starting with…

Also, because time constraints have me missing the first game, let me just say I think the Cardinals are winning it in an upset. Warner was brought on specifically for this purpose.

In a strange season, perhaps the strangest team of all has been the San Diego Chargers, who entered the season with aspirations of greatness, quickly became a caution for teams with boisterous attitudes by falling to teams that were obviously less talented and losing every meaningful close matchup they faced, and have stumbled into the playoffs as an 8-8 team while an 11-5 squad stays at home. The final strange twist? In doing so, they may have become the most dangerous, unpredictable team of the NFL playoffs. So you’re disappointed in the Chargers up to this point? Fine, but the fact remains that this team has the offensive firepower (thanks to a small RB renaissance courtesy of Darrel Sproles) to overwhelm ANYONE, let alone a defense that is good, but not great, and certainly prone to being hit hard by short, quick backs (for reference, look at what Chris Johnson and MJD did to this team during the year). Led by a quarterback whose chip on his shoulder has only gotten bigger thanks to a Pro Bowl snub following a league leading statistical performance, this Chargers team looks strangely similar to last years squad, an angry bunch of underachievers with enough nastiness to throw the knockout punch indiscriminately and the firepower to make it hurt.

Yet if there’s a team that’s learned to roll with the punches, it’s been the Colts, who, after a similarly bad start, have rallied to win shootouts, blowouts, grind it outs, and eventually won out from week nine on to enter the playoffs at a stunning 12-4. The rally point has obviously been Peyton Manning, who put together yet another MVP season while fighting both injuries to himself and his team. Despite a (relatively) inconspicuous season in terms of numbers, 2009 did more than perhaps even his Super Bowl run to shed Manning’s label as soft. Battling injuries to both himself and his team, there’s no question that it’s been Manning leading the Colts over the course of their nine game win streak, throwing a stunning 17 TD to just 3 INT and posting a QB rating under 92 just once. Transforming into the kind of quarterback who simply will not lose, Manning has his team looking like the team to beat in the AFC despite their wild card status.

All of this is made even more interesting by the fact that these teams have, over the last two seasons, tied their stories together with some of the most interesting games of their respective seasons, resulting in something akin to the grudge match rivalries of old. Let’s not forget last year’s two bizarre losses by the Colts, one of which saw Manning turn the ball over five times and another in which Billy Volek came off of the Chargers bench to put the nail in the Colts coffin. Then there was this year’s 23-20 slugfest, which the Colts won courtesy of brilliant game planning that kept Rivers and company off of the field just long enough to eek out a victory. This playoff contest, then, pits two teams that, at least early on in the season, were both written off as the “old guard”, relics of former greatness to be swallowed by a new generation of talent. For the Colts, this battle has been obvious all year, and it’s a credit to Manning, Clark, Wayne, and Bob Sanders that they’ve proven that they’ve still got the goods to hang with any and all comers.

For the Chargers, on the other hand, this season has been not just a fight against up and coming teams, but against their own classification as the “old guard”. Philip Rivers, Vincent Jackson, and Chris Chambers are far from the ends of their careers, and LT has yet to crack 30, yet the clamoring that this team is ready to be rebooted come from every corner of sports media. Perhaps no team is better suited to spit in the face of wise old sages like the Colts and angry mobs in the media than the Chargers, whose unique brand of talent and brashness is built for upsets such as the one they’ll need tonight. In essence, we’re seeing the process of aging gracefully face off against the staunch refusal to grow up, with the stakes for both teams, a passing into irrelevance, equally large.

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