SAN DIEGO -- Peyton Manning was poised to atone for a franchise-record-tying five interceptions.
He'd moved the Indianapolis Colts well within Adam Vinatieri's range with 1:31 left on a crazy, rainy night.
Snap, hold and ... miss!
Vinatieri, who'd won two Super Bowls for New England with last-second field goals, pushed a 29-yard attempt wide right, and the San Diego Chargers escaped with a wild 23-21 win over the defending Super Bowl champions on Sunday night. But not before Manning had one more chance to pull out the win in the final minute, only to throw a record sixth interception as time expired.
"I should make that kick every time," Vinatieri said. "There are no good excuses. I just missed it."
Watching Vinatieri line up for the kick, "I almost had a heart attack," said Darren Sproles, who had electrified the crowd by returning the opening kickoff and a punt for his first two NFL touchdowns.
After nearly blowing all of a 23-7 fourth-quarter lead, the Chargers could exhale.
"We were just trying to block it and pray that he misses it," said cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who picked off Manning three times.
"You always try to take care of it yourself," Manning said. "As an offensive player, you try to get in the end zone. We certainly left plenty of points out there before the last drive."
Had Vinatieri's kick gone through, it would have been the 29th time that Manning rallied the Colts from either a fourth-quarter deficit or tie to win.
San Diego (5-4) took over sole possession of first place in the anemic AFC West.
The Colts (7-2), who started the season 7-0 before losing 24-20 to New England a week ago, scored two touchdowns and a two-point conversion in 23 seconds early in the fourth quarter to pull to within 23-21.
"Losing two in a row is disappointing," Manning said.
Manning threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to running back Kenton Keith on the first play of the fourth quarter and then a conversion pass to Bryan Fletcher to close to 23-15.
On third-and-10 from the 8-yard line, Philip Rivers went back to pass, and the ball slipped out of his hand and into the end zone. After a wild scramble, Colts linebacker Gary Brackett picked up the ball for a TD with 14:28 to play. Joseph Addai was stuffed on the two-point conversion attempt, and the Colts trailed 23-21.
"That's one of the most disappointing games we've had since I've been here," coach Tony Dungy said. "For us to give up two kick returns for scores ... we just gave away too many points. It wasn't a good performance."
Manning's final pickoff, by safety Clinton Hart, came on a desperation pass as time ran out.
"It was poor quarterback play on my part," Manning said. "I take full responsibility for all of them."
Manning completed 34 of a career-high 56 attempts for 328 yards. Rivers was horrible, going 13 of 24 for 104 yards and no touchdowns, with two interceptions, for a career-low passer rating of 30.6.
Two weeks after breaking Johnny Unitas' franchise record of 287 touchdown passes, Manning passed the Hall of Famer again, but not in a way he'll want to remember. The previous franchise records for interceptions was five, done seven times, including four times by Unitas. Manning had thrown just four interceptions coming into the game.
With two touchdown passes, Manning pushed his career total to 291 to pass Unitas and take sixth on the on the all-time list.
Sproles and Cromartie were nothing short of sensational.
Three Colts were left grasping air as Sproles returned the opening kickoff 89 yards for a score, and no one had a decent shot on his 45-yard punt return until punter Hunter Smith missed at about the 1.
"We finally broke through," Sproles said. "I felt like for a long time we've been very close. It finally happened."
Cromartie was equally exciting as he filled in for injured cornerback Quentin Jammer. After getting zero picks as a rookie last year, Cromartie now leads the Chargers with six.
The third pickoff was a beauty. A week after scoring on the longest play in NFL history, a 109-yard return of a missed field goal at Minnesota, Cromartie burned Manning by reaching up with his right hand and pulling the ball down to his chest in one motion.
It was the 11th time a Chargers player had three interceptions in a game, and it set up LaDainian Tomlinson's 4-yard TD run to make it 23-0.
"It means a lot coming against the best quarterback in the NFL," Cromartie said. "For me to pick off three passes, it's a great accomplishment."
Cromartie thought Manning was picking on him early on. "But I was just trying to cover my guy and make the plays."
Notes: Tomlinson had 76 yards on 21 carries. ... Vinatieri missed a 42-yard field goal try as the second-quarter clock expired. ... Colts DE Dwight Freeney left in the fourth quarter with a foot injury. ... Rivers was booed when he was shown on the video screen in the fourth quarter.