Tom Krasovic: Chargers-Patriots rematch brings back memories, but it's not quite the sameJanuary 12, 2019 10:46am

Jan. 11-- SAN DIEGO-Dealt a torn knee ligament, young Philip Rivers departed the AFC Divisional playoff game, which meant he had to walk by hostile Colts fans inside the Indianapolis dome.

Many of the blue-clad faithful, seeing Rivers as low-flying skeet, opened verbal fire with taunts and obscenities as the brash young quarterback came within earshot.

Rivers looked up and volleyed back, while pointing.

In true Rivers fashion, the language suited the Disney Channel.

"Don't you worry," he vowed, "I'll be back."

Eleven years later, the San Diegan makes a return of sorts-not to Indiana but to New England, where he hasn't appeared in an NFL postseason game since his knee gave out that January.

It's perfect football theater ... almost.

It's perfect that Rivers goes into Sunday's AFC Divisional game with a sturdy right knee, instead of having to press through a torn anterior cruciate ligament as he did 11 years ago in Foxborough, Mass., seven days after his right foot got stuck on the carpet in the Indy dome since razed.

It's perfect that Antonio Gates, still one of Motown's greatest hits, is healed and chugging along, too, and latching onto Rivers' third-down passes.

"Gosh," Rivers said this week, comparing Gates' bum toe to his bum knee in January 2008, "he may have been in worse shape."

It's perfect that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are the opponents once again, and that Rivers and Gates will walk into the same venue, Gillette Stadium, as they did 11 years ago as young football hipsters.

By golly, if you're finally going to reach a Super Bowl-or, in this case, get to the semifinals of the Super Bowl tournament-you ought to have to conquer the Pats in their icebox where Brady has gone 19-3 in the postseason.

Didn't hobbits Frodo and Sam have to brave Mordor to destroy the ring?

"You've got to appreciate it, enjoy it, and do all you can," said Rivers, who rightly described the Pats and their home-field edge as the NFL's top standard for some two decades.

Even with running back Melvin Gordon nursing leg injuries, the squad that Rivers directs is in robust health for January-a lot better, Rivers noted, than the 2007 club.

The Pats are in excellent winter health, too, and favored on betting lines.

All perfect, this set-up, right down to the frosty football weather.

Well, perfect except for that blue-and-gold pachyderm that even the NFL media machine can't ignore.

The Relocation.

If the Chargers were in San Diego, the whole region, from Baja to Oceanside and east, would be a far more connected world this week. Would be as animated as Rivers after a touchdown pass.

While locals would be risking familiar heartbreak to invest emotion in this franchise-two of the stoutest Chargers clubs ever, recall, were eliminated by the Pats after the 2006 and 2007 seasons-the prospects of a breakthrough against big, bad New England would prompt Chargers viewing parties throughout San Diego County.

Rivers can't busy himself with that, of course.

"San Diego will always be special for me, and I know for many of us, and I'm still there," he said Wednesday from the Orange County business park where the team is headquartered.

"You hope that some of those fans can be happy and be excited for the team they've cheered for. And, I know that many others may not (be able to). You know that that's a hard decision and kind of position to be in. But, certainly the people I've run into have always been very supportive."

If there's payback to be had, doesn't San Diego deserve to enjoy it?

Twelve years ago when the Pats came to Mission Valley to face Marty Schottenheimer's No. 1-seeded team, San Diego was as jacked up as Windansea surf after a winter storm.

The Chargers rolled into the Divisional playoff matchup on a 10-game win streak. Along with nine Pro Bowlers and five All-Pro selections, they boasted the NFL's top-scoring offense, the league's top sack total, the 2006 MVP in running back LaDainian Tomlinson and a Pro Bowl kicker in Nate Kaeding.

Though they'd played the AFC's weakest schedule per some metrics, they would've been a heavy favorite in the Super Bowl against the NFC-champion, Rex Grossman-quarterbacked Bears team that would lose by 12 points as a 6{-point underdog against the Colts.

___

Yes, Marlon McCree made a dumb decision that bled into the Chargers blowing a double-digit lead and losing, 24-21.

A safety, McCree exposed the ball after intercepting Brady's errant pass in the fourth quarter with San Diego ahead 21-13 and more than six minutes to play.

"I was trying to make a play," McCree said. "Anytime I get the ball, I am going to try to score."

After Pats receiver Troy Brown stripped McCree and receiver Reche Caldwell recovered, Brady drove 32 yards for a tying touchdown.

Fitting McCree with goat horns, though, overlooks that the Chargers dropped six passes, committed four turnovers and wasted timeouts.

Former Chargers aides have said McCree failed to heed Marty Schottenheimer's instructions to protect the ball if the defense forced a turnover, but the head coach had his own moments of brain freeze, too.

In the first quarter, opting against a 48-yard field-goal try, Schottenheimer went for it on fourth-and-11 at New England's 30.

The Pats sacked Rivers, leading to their own field goal and a 3-0 lead.

Schottenheimer, whose postseason record fell to 5-13, also wasted two timeouts.

Even after McCree's fumble, the Chargers had the ball, but they failed to get a first down and punted. Then, with the crowd howling for a defensive stop on third-and-10, Caldwell ran past former Bolts teammate Quentin Jammer and pulled in Brady's pass for a 49-yard reception, setting up the winning field goal.

Moments after the game, Caldwell restrained Tomlinson, who went after Pats players for celebrating near the lightning-bolt logo near midfield, where they mimicked the sack celebration of sackmaster Shawne Merriman.

"I can't sit there and watch that," Tomlinson said. "I was very upset. They showed no class at all, absolutely no class, and maybe it comes from their head coach."

The game's top performer was probably Tomlinson, who set an NFL record with 28 rushing touchdowns that season. He amassed 187 all-purpose yards and averaged 5.3 yards per carry.

___

A year after losing as a 5-point favorite, the Chargers were a 14-point underdog in the AFC Championship Game at Foxborough in blustery conditions with a 9-degree wind chill.

The Patriots were the first NFL team to go 18-0. Not only Rivers and Gates but also Tomlinson were ailing.

The running back exited after three touches due to a knee sprain that worsened with a hit from Pats linebacker Tedy Bruschi.

With the Chargers unable to score a touchdown despite three trips inside the 10, the Patriots earned the victory, 21-12.

Rivers said this week the red-zone failures stood out most. He said his knee injury wasn't a big factor.

Then-Chargers coach Norv Turner has noted a blown call by crew chief Jeff Triplette, who failed to flag a blatant leg whip by Mike Vrabel that caused Rivers to throw a crucial interception.

Rivers wasn't the only ailing quarterback, though.

Brady, who threw three interceptions, was fighting a back injury that the Pats kept quiet.

The '07 Pats had one of the great offenses in NFL history, one whose extreme use of shotgun formation and shifty routes out of the slot foretold coming NFL trends. Brady threw for 50 touchdowns, and the offense set a league record with 589 points.

___

New England's bitter cold 11 years ago created a pregame dilemma for Chargers radio broadcasters Josh Lewin and Hank Bauer.

Lewin prefers a fully open window in the booth, but frostbite may have resulted, he jokingly noted. So, he and Bauer compromised by sliding the window halfway.

Able to be heard and seen, Pats fans made their presence known to the San Diego delegates.

"It wasn't even the look on the Patriots fans, it was just sneers," Lewin said this week. "That press box, you're right on the 40-yard line, right in the middle of the fans, and those fans, a lot of them, were just so obnoxious, it was such a fait accompli for them, that their team was going to do it. And, they were brutal. Pointing and laughing at the booth, saying: 'Ha-ha. Same old Chargers. Ha-ha.' "

Inside the Chargers' booth, two strangers had parked themselves. When queried by Lewin at halftime, they pointed to their "all access" badges. In thick New England accents, they informed Lewin they could stay as long as they desired.

"I wasn't going to get in a fight," said Lewin. "They just kind of put their feet up on our furniture and said, 'We don't even think twice about it.' You thought, 'Boy, the Patriots literally just go wherever they want, do whatever they please.' "

Night had fallen when the Chargers boarded the bus, but the hits kept coming.

As Pats fans pelted the bus with snowballs, Lewin mused on the losses in consecutive postseasons.

"Just pulling off into the New England darkness, you're thinking, 'Man, it was right there and it didn't happen-again,' " he said.

___

Consolation for the Chargers and their fans after the loss at New England was the team's stellar core of controllable talent led by Rivers, then 26.

Also, Team Spanos had a rising star on Turner's staff in defensive assistant Ron Rivera, and the rest of the AFC West was suspect, at least until Peyton Manning joined the Broncos in 2012 and Andy Reid took over the Chiefs in 2013.

However, for as long as they remained in San Diego, the Chargers never got back to the AFC title game. And they would win only one more outright AFC West title, in 2009.

Meantime, while the Chargers finished their San Diego tenure with 4-12 and 5-11 records in 2015-16, the Belichick & Brady Era produced another AFC Championship Game appearance and a fifth Super Bowl victory, respectively.

___

At a La Jolla home this weekend, cheers will be heard for Rivers and Gates and other Chargers players.

"I want to see them do well, especially Philip and Gates," said Kris Dielman, a Chargers mainstay at left guard from 2005-10, during which San Diego won four straight AFC West titles. He added: "I love Philip-he's the ultimate teammate, ultimate player, ultimate quarterback."

The two January losses to the Pats always will bug him, said Dielman.

Asked if a victory Sunday would lessen the sting, he said no.

"We had our chance," he said. "Those memories come up. Especially when your kids bring it up: 'Daddy, what happened in that game?' "

His reply to his children: Don't ask me that.

___

The rotten end to the franchise's 56-year tenure in San Diego planted several seeds for the current on-field prosperity of Chargers Football Company, LLC.

Standout defensive end Joey Bosa, drafted third overall and the first non-quarterback taken in the 2016 draft, was the reward for the team's 5-11 record. Also, the team gained what general manager Tom Telesco termed a second first-round pick, which netted tight end Hunter Henry, who went 35th overall and is expected to play Sunday after missing all 17 games with a knee injury.

After the Spanoses brought coach Mike McCoy back for a fourth season, saving them the expense of hiring a new coach and likely several assistants, McCoy's final team continued the program's habit of losing close games.

The last-place finish in 2016 bequeathed the No. 7 draft pick to the L.A. newbies.

Receiver Mike Williams was the choice, and though a back injury dampened his rookie season, the 6-foot-4 playmaker has contributed to several recent victories, including the upset at Kansas City and the wild card-round triumph last week at Baltimore.

Team Spanos' L.A. launch also coincided with the hire of McCoy's replacement, Anthony Lynn, who unlike many of the Spanos Era hires, seems comfortable as a leader of men and doesn't appear an assistant masquerading as a head coach.

"Steady," said Rivers of Lynn, singling out his foremost attribute.

For Lynn's team to win Sunday as a 4-point underdog, it'll probably take cleaning up the mistakes on special teams and short-pass defense that fueled the 21-13 loss at New England in October 2017.

No doubt the telecast will garner strong ratings in San Diego.

Of course, the whole vibe would be stronger if Rivers and Gates were playing for the San Diego Chargers.

"This should be such a time of joy, or potential joy, and hope, and galvanizing the community," said Lewin, a North County resident. "Instead, you've got kind of warring factions of, 'Well, my love for Philip trumps my hate for Dean,' and other people that see it the other way-'I can't get over the Spanoses doing this to us and, sorry, Philip, but I just can't bring myself to it.' You have people who this meant so much to just a couple years ago, and now they can't even get on the same page.

"It's frustrating."

___

(c)2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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