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A charge in them

Upset of Colts has San Diego confident - but realistic - about advancing

Email|Print| Text size + By John Powers
Globe Staff / January 15, 2008

INDIANAPOLIS - Maybe it was just a bit of irrational exuberance, a celebratory proclamation blurted out after the Chargers' biggest victory since the 1994 season.

"The way that we're playing now, nothing can stop us," defensive end Igor Olshansky crowed Sunday, after San Diego had knocked off Indianapolis, 28-24, to make an unexpected date with the Patriots for the AFC title at Gillette Stadium. "The way that we overcome adversity and everything else. I guarantee you that [Bill] Belichick and everybody else over there are scratching their heads saying, 'Man, we better get ready.' "

The rest of the Bolts have no such illusions. They know the New England coaching staff likely was drawing up a game plan for them even before Peyton Manning's last-gasp pass had bounced off Dallas Clark's outstretched hand.

"It'll probably be the toughest game we've ever played," reckoned running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who should be back in the starting lineup after banging up his left knee. "I'm pretty sure we'll be huge underdogs, and rightfully so."

The Chargers were 9-point dogs against the defending NFL champions before they sent the Colts to the glue factory with both Tomlinson and quarterback Philip Rivers watching from the sideline as they made their fourth comeback.

"That's the true meaning of a team," said Tomlinson. "Guys kept believing, and got it done."

This was a statement game, a decla ration that the former Bolts, the ones who were said to be softer than the sand at Windansea Beach, now can zap anyone, anywhere.

"We've got some guys who compete and fight and scratch and claw as good as I've ever been around," said coach Norv Turner, whose club has won eight straight games after losing three of its first four.

Now, though, San Diego will be up against a Patriots team that hasn't lost a home playoff game in three decades, that ripped a victory away from them on their home field last January, and that ran up a 24-point lead on them at halftime en route to a 38-14 beatdown in their meeting in Foxborough this season.

"We know it will be a challenge," said Rivers. "We are going against a team that might be the best there ever was."

The Chargers were in meetings during most of New England's victory over Jacksonville Saturday night, but they caught the highlights and were duly impressed, as they have been all season.

"They're the best team in the NFL," saluted backup quarterback Billy Volek, who scored the winning touchdown against Indianapolis. "I take my hat off to them."

That doesn't mean, though, that San Diego is working on a concession speech. This isn't the same team the Patriots bum-rushed in September or bamboozled in last year's divisional playoffs, when safety Marlon McCree had the ball stripped by Troy Brown after making what should have been a game-ending interception.

"I think we're probably keeping our poise a little bit," said linebacker Shawne Merriman, whose chase-down of Manning provoked the killer incompletion on fourth and goal with two minutes to play. "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."

The Chargers played every quarter right to the end against Indianapolis. Antonio Cromartie, a dashman masquerading as cornerback, ran an interception back 89 yards for a (nullified) touchdown in the last 20 seconds of the half. Rivers, on his last play before hurting his right knee, threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Darren Sproles on the final play of the third quarter. And the defense, which conceded Manning 14 completions on his first 14 attempts, thwarted him on six of his final seven to ice the game.

All it will take Sunday, the Chargers acknowledge, is more of the same, and then some.

"You have to play those guys for 60 minutes," said Merriman. "They're a team that likes to go up on you early. You have to go out and fight them hand to hand."

The Chargers played two complete games to get here, leaving the Colts stunned and speechless as they closed the door on the RCA Dome for good. But they understand that they'll need to bring their A game and their mittens to The Razor.

"It'll be twice as hard," Merriman conceded, "with more on the line."

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com

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