Speedy little Darren Sproles scooted 22 yards for the winning score 6 minutes, 20 seconds into overtime and the Chargers beat the Colts, 23-17, in an AFC wild-card game Saturday night, ending Indianapolis’ nine-game winning streak a day after Manning won his third Associated Press NFL MVP award.
The 5-foot-6 Sproles came up big when the Chargers played the final 21/2 quarters without LaDainian Tomlinson, who stood on the sideline in obvious discomfort from what appears to be a serious groin injury.
Fifty years after the Baltimore Colts won the first overtime game in league history by the same score over the New York Giants for the NFL title, Indianapolis wasn’t so fortunate. It was victimized by Sproles, who rushed 23 times for 105 yards, caught five passes for 45 yards, had 106 yards on four kickoff returns and 72 on three punt runbacks for 328 all-purpose yards.
“It’s disappointing to lose a playoff game,” Manning said. “We certainly had some chances to win, but give them credit. We had chances to put the game away, but we just didn’t do it.”
The Chargers (9-8) won the overtime toss. Indy’s Darrell Reid called heads, but referee Ron Winter’s flip came up tails.
Sproles sent the Chargers into the second round of the playoffs, either at Tennessee or Pittsburgh, by finishing off the only series of overtime with his TD run around left end against an exhausted defense for the Colts (12-5).
San Diego’s winning drive was aided by two defensive holding calls, the second against Tim Jennings on third-and-8. On the next play, Colts linebacker Clint Session was whistled for grabbing Sproles’ facemask. Sproles scored on the next play, shedding a defender at the 5-yard line.
“You know, when your number is called, you have to be ready,” said Sproles, who early in the game fumbled into the end zone, with the Colts recovering.
“Right after that fumble, it was still kind of in my mind,” Sproles said. “I wanted that TD back to make up for the fumble.”
Sproles’ TD run sent Qualcomm Stadium into bedlam, and he ran off the field with the game ball. Manning hung his head in disappointment.
It was San Diego’s fifth win in a row; the Chargers needed the previous four victories to secure the AFC West title with an 8-8 record. San Diego was the ninth team to enter the playoffs with an 8-8 record and became the third to win its opener. The Chargers had gone 0-5 against teams that made the playoffs, including a 23-20 loss to the Colts on Nov. 23 in San Diego.
Last season, the Chargers pulled off a 28-24 upset at Indianapolis in the divisional round after Philip Rivers and Tomlinson both went out with knee injuries.
This was the fourth time the teams met in two seasons and the sixth time in five years. The Chargers have won four of the six.
San Diego got its first sack of the game at a key time, when Tim Dobbins dropped Manning at the Colts 1 on third down with two minutes left, forcing a punt and giving the Chargers the ball at the Indy 38.
Nate Kaeding kicked a 26-yard field goal with 31 seconds left to force overtime.
It was the 25th overtime game in the postseason, including one game in the AFL. The last overtime game in the playoffs was last season’s NFC title game, won by the New York Giants and Manning’s little brother, Eli, against the Green Bay Packers.
Another star for the Chargers was Mike Scifres, whose booming punts continually pinned the Colts deep in their territory. Scifres punted six times for an average of 52.7 yards, including a 67-yarder.
“I don’t know if you can dream a game like this,” Scifres said.
Still, Manning caught the Chargers napping on a 72-yard touchdown play that for a while seemed like it was going to stand as the winner.
Facing third-and-5 from the Colts 28, Manning quickly lined up and took an immediate snap that caught cornerback Antonio Cromartie so flat-footed he was looking at the Chargers’ bench when receiver Reggie Wayne went speeding past him and safety Paul Oliver. Wayne caught Manning’s pass at the Chargers’ 45 and was gone for a 17-14 lead.
The Colts came up with two turnovers in the end zone. Sproles was hit at the 2-yard line and fumbled into the end zone late in the third quarter, with Raheem Brock recovering.
Rivers kept San Diego’s next drive alive with a 13-yard scramble followed by a 1-yard sneak on fourth down, but then overthrew Chris Chambers in double coverage and was intercepted in the end zone by Antoine Bethea.
The teams traded TDs early, with Indy’s Joseph Addai scoring on a 1-yard run late in the first quarter and Tomlinson scoring on a 3-yard run early in the second quarter, his last play of the game.