The San Diego Chargers are going to the playoffs. On the surface this statement doesn’t seem like a huge deal. After all, eleven other teams earned playoff berths as well. But when you dig a little deeper it becomes clear that the Chargers are quite the unlikely entry into the NFL’s postseason tournament.
Start with the way 2012 season ended. San Diego finished with a record of 7-9 and fired head coach Norv Turner as well as general manager AJ Smith. There were questions about quarterback Phillip Rivers, who had one of the worst seasons of his career. Rivers threw fifteen interceptions in 2012 while also fumbling fifteen times.
Another big question mark for the Chargers was the running back position. Starter Ryan Matthews had rushed for only 707 yards and a single touchdown in 2012, and many were starting to believe he wasn’t the man to carry the load.
San Diego’s turn around began with the hiring of former Indianapolis Colts’ vice president of football operations Tom Telesco as general manager. Telesco then formed a search committee which hired Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy as head coach.
When the 2013 season began, expectations weren’t very high in San Diego. The Chargers fought and clawed their way to four wins in their first seven games. The 4-3 record entering a bye week was certainly better than expected, but it was also no reason for celebration. But there was optimism to be found in the play of Rivers, who seemed more like the man the Chargers chose over Drew Brees than the mistake prone signal caller of the previous season.
Then there was the emergence of Matthews, who finally looked like the feature back the Chargers hoped they were getting when they drafted him our of Fresno State with the 12th overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft. On the season, Matthews would rush for 1,255 yards and six touchdowns.
Any thoughts of a playoff berth were likely quashed during the next five games; four of which ended up as Charger losses. Following a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on December 1st, San Diego’s record stood at 5-7. It looked like a case of different season, same result.
But then the Chargers won three in a row, including a surprising victory road victory over Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Suddenly San Diego had improved to 8-7 and the playoffs were no longer completely out of the question.
Still, entering the regular season’s final weekend, San Diego needed a lot to happen to have a chance at the postseason. The Chargers had to beat Kansas City; a playoff team, though one that was resting many starters. San Diego also needed a Miami loss to the Jets and a Baltimore loss to Cincinnati.
It was one of those dreams that couldn’t possibly come true, until it did. Miami and Baltimore both lost, and the Chargers had their chance. But they still needed a win over the Chiefs. Trailing by ten points in the fourth quarter, Rivers led San Diego on back-to-back scoring drives to tie the game. Normally reliable Kansas City kicker Ryan Succop missed a field goal at the end of regulation and the game headed to overtime.
That was when things got really wacky. Facing a fourth down and two at their own 28 yard line, the Chargers ran a fake punt. Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle took the snap and ran straight ahead. After gaining enough for the first down, Weddle lost the ball. Kansas City recovered, the officials ruled that Weddle’s forward progress had already been stopped. The drive continued and Nick Novak eventually kicked a go-ahead 36 yard field goal.
When the San Diego defense stopped the Chiefs on downs on their next possession it was official: they were headed for the postseason. The sixth seeded Chargers will face the number three seed, AFC North champion Cincinnati in the first round on Sunday. Even if the season comes to and end against the Bengals, it was quite a ride for McCoy and his team. After all, no one even expected them to get this far.