INDIANAPOLIS (Dec. 18, 2005) -- Maybe the Indianapolis Colts will end up thanking San Diego for ending their perfect season Sunday.
"It's tough to go 16-0. You have to play well every week," coach Tony Dungy said after his team was beaten 26-17 by San Diego to end its 13-game unbeaten run.
"That wasn't the main goal in our mind. Losing wasn't what we wanted to do, but if it brings us back with a little more resolve, then maybe something will come of it."
No, the Colts weren't happy -- the locker room was quiet and emptied quickly.
But the last team to start 13-0, the 1998 Denver Broncos, went on to win the Super Bowl, and several players from that team say now that losing their 14th (and 15th) games made the final victory easier.
This was a game of dramatic turnarounds.
The Chargers went ahead for good on a 49-yard field goal by Nate Kaeding with 6:41 left after the Colts erased a 16-0 deficit with a field goal and two touchdowns in a six-minute span of the third quarter. Then Michael Turner clinched it with an 83-yard touchdown run after rookie Luis Castillo sacked Peyton Manning to knock the Colts out of field-goal range.
"I think they're the best team in the football. But all week, we felt we could beat them," said San Diego rookie Shawne Merriman, who had two sacks and forced an important intentional grounding by Manning. "It will always go down in the books, no matter what happened before or after."
The win kept San Diego (9-5) alive for an AFC wild-card spot and prevented Denver from clinching the AFC West. The Chargers will need help to make the playoffs.
It also allows the Colts to rest starters for the final two games, having already clinched home-field advantage for the AFC playoffs.
And it certainly led to champagne celebrations by members of the 1972 Dolphins, the only team to complete a season undefeated.
"It's just another example of how tough it is to run the table in the NFL. And while congratulations are in order to the Colts for the great run they had this year, it points out once again that the 1972 team was something special, even if we don't always get recognized as such," said Manny Fernandez, a defensive lineman on that team.
Said Dungy: "The only consolation now is that we won't be asked all those questions, have all the media around and we can have more focus on our ultimate goal, to win the Super Bowl."
The Colts played dreadfully for much of the game -- almost as if they wanted to take off the pressure.
Manning was sacked on each of the first two series and also threw an interception, although he finished with 336 yards passing, many of them late in the game. Fortunately for Indy, Drayton Florence, who picked off the pass, fumbled it back as he was returning it.
Still, the Chargers were leading 16-0 midway through the third quarter on a 29-yard TD pass from Drew Brees to Keenan McCardell and three field goals by Kaeding.
"They were treating it like a playoff game and we were, too," Manning said. "I feel very disappointed that we lost the game."
The Colts rallied behind their defense.
Trailing 16-3 after Mike Vanderjagt's field goal, Gary Brackett intercepted Brees' pass, setting up a 1-yard TD run by Edgerrin James. Then Dwight Freeney sacked Brees to force a fumble, and Manning threw a 1-yard TD pass to Dallas Clark.
Suddenly it was 17-16 with 40 seconds left in the third quarter, and the RCA Dome, quiet for almost three quarters, exploded in a raucous roar.
It got louder when McCardell fielded Hunter Smith 's punt on the goal line a few minutes into the fourth quarter and could get only to his 8. But McCardell atoned, catching a 54-yard pass from Brees, who finished 22 of 33 for 255 yards, to set up Kaeding's field goal that put the Chargers up 19-17.
Nick Harper's end-zone interception after Dominic Rhodes fumbled the ensuing kickoff stopped one threat for the Colts. Manning drove the Colts down the field, but the grounding call when he was pressured by Merriman cost him 12 yards and Castillo's sack forced a punt.
Two plays later, Turner turned right end and raced untouched down the sideline for the clincher.
"We call multiple plays in the huddle or on the line. That's called an alert," Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer said of the run by Turner, who was subbing for LaDainian Tomlinson, who bruised his ribs. "We see what they show. Then we either run the play or run the alert. That was the alert."
That was the alert that made the 1972 Dolphins happy. It might be the alert that takes the pressure off the Colts en route to an NFL title.
Notes: Schottenheimer said that Tomlinson, who finished with 76 yards on 24 carries, was not seriously hurt. ... Colts right tackle Ryan Diem sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. ... Chargers tight end Antonio Gates and wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne of the Colts all went over 1,000 yards for the season, the seventh straight year past that mark for Harrison. ... Edgerrin James set the franchise mark for touchdowns with 64, one more than Lenny Moore of the old Baltimore Colts.