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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Chargers Win! Denver Doesn't!

SIGN ON SAN DIEGO.COM – Little more than 3½ weeks ago, they were 3½ games out of first place. They had all sorts of defensive shortcomings, no running game to speak of and no reason to think LaDainian Tomlinson would be able to bring it back to life.

Catch the Denver Broncos? Again?


Four games and four wins later, almost unfathomably, the Chargers already have climbed back alongside Denver atop the AFC West Division. Withstanding a full-scale passing assault by Donovan McNabb, the Chargers on Sunday pulled out a 31-23 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, drawing even with the Broncos at 6-3. As these things happen, of course, the Chargers play at Denver next Sunday.

The game was witnessed by 68,879, the third-largest crowd to ever see the Chargers play at home, and a considerable number of those in attendance came across country to see McNabb shred the Chargers’ defense. And he did. To a point.

Thwarted time and again by San Diego when getting in close through the first three quarters – by which time the Chargers led 28-9 on the strength of two Tomlinson touchdowns – McNabb passed the Eagles to two scores to make things interesting. He finished with 450 yards passing.

Philip Rivers showed some mastery of his own, though, killing enough time off the clock en route to a Nate Kaeding field goal with 30 seconds to play. The game ended with Antonio Cromartie intercepting McNabb's desperation pass in the end zone.

Even before kickoff, the Chargers knew they had first place within their grasp, no small thing to a team that began the season 2-3 and already 3½ games behind the then-unbeaten Denver Broncos. In an earlier game Sunday, the Broncos were upset at Washington, dropping the Broncos to 6-3 with their third straight loss.

The Eagles gave the Chargers a nice little gift in the game’s early going, too, Sav Rocca squibbing his first punt for just 30 yards to set up San Diego at the Eagles’ 40. The Chargers covered half the distance, including a 10-yard gain by receiver Legedu Naanee on a direct snap from “wildcat” formation, before Rivers hit fullback Mike Tolbert with a quick pass over the middle and the 20-yard touchdown.

As they did last week in a road defeat of the New York Giants, the Chargers were particularly effective in first-down defense, forcing the Eagles to the air. Not all of the passing was done by McNabb, either. Michael Vick made his first appearance of the game late in the first quarter, throwing a second-and-eight pass well downfield to DeSean Jackson, who dropped the ball and turned an ankle in the process.

San Diego maintained the 7-0 lead into the second quarter and immediately went to work building on it, running all sorts of different stuff at Philadelphia’s flyaround defense. Tomlinson took the wildcat for five yards, and with a six–yard gain two plays later, he passed Thurman Thomas (12,074 yards) into 13th place on the all-time rushing list.

Before the drive was over, Tomlinson had tied local product Marcus Allen in third place on the all-time touchdown list with his 145th, a five-yard bolt up the middle.

A 14-0 lead’s nothing against a multiskilled offense like Philadelphia’s, though, and McNabb quickly passed the Eagles downfield. A pass interference call on Quentin Jammer in the end zone gave the Eagles a first-and-goal at the one-yard line. They would get no closer.

Inside linebackers Kevin Burnett and Brandon Siler combined to stuff a first-down dive. McNabb resorted to a bootleg play, but tight end Brent Celek was too well covered in the back corner of the end zone and McNabb effectively threw it away.

On third down, running back Edra Buckley was stopped cold by defensive linemen Ian Scott and Alfonso Boone, whereupon inside linebacker Stephen Cooper took a few steps toward the Philadelphia bench and challenged the Eagles to try it again on fourth. Not biting, head coach Andy Reid sent on the field-goal unit, and it was 14-3.

Likewise, McNabb guided the Eagles on another promising drive on its next possession, only to come away with another David Akers field goal of 25 yards eight seconds before intermission.

While momentum seemed to be flipping over to the Eagles, they continued to hurt themselves with penalties in the third quarter. A 34-yard reception by Jeremy Maclin was negated by his own pass-interference infraction, and a 10-yard gain by Tomlinson was extended by an unnecessary–roughness call.

Not that Tomlinson needed the help. He was running like the L.T. of old – 24 carries for 96 yards – and continuing to pass some old legends in the process.

Breaking through the right side and capitalizing on the blocks of guard Kris Dielman and Brandon Manumaleuna, Tomlinson went 20 yards for the TD that pushed him ahead of Marcus Allen on the TD list, leaving him behind only Jerry Rice (208) and Tomlinson idol Emmitt Smith (175). At the same time, he surpassed Franco Harris (12,130) in rushing yards.

Qualcomm Stadium was seemingly half-full of fans wearing Eagles colors. To be sure, they were booing like true Philadelphians, especially when Reid chose yet again to take an Akers field goal instead of a chance on fourth-and-one at the San Diego seven-yard line.

Three-pointers indeed weren’t going to cut it after the Chargers made it 28-9 with their next drive, triggered by Darren Sproles’ kickoff return to the 41-yard line. Rivers connected on four straight passes, the last one a 20-yarder to Naanee, wide open and waiting just inside the backline of the end zone.

The rest of the game, virtually the entire fourth quarter, was basically spent watching the clock and McNabb completing pass after pass. Two of them were caught in the end zone.

McNabb found Maclin uncovered for a five-yard score. When he hit Celek for an 11-yard TD with 7:12 remaining, pulling the Eagles to within a touchdown of winning, McNabb had completed 33 of 50 attempts for 418 yards.