Here we go again.
A new calendar year is likely to procure an old and familiar refrain for the San Diego Chargers, the NFL's walking definition of instability. When January comes around in a couple of weeks, the always-unpredictable team will either be basking in exhilaration from the high created by another AFC West title delivered by an out-of-nowhere closing kick, or left with the sinking low that one more season of what could have been invariably creates.
It was only fitting that on the "Bizarro Sunday" of an already out-of-order 2011 season -- a session that saw the Colts win, the Packers lose and eight of the 13 triumphant teams fielding an inferior record than the one it vanquished -- the schizophrenic Chargers capped it all off with a resounding exclamation point that few observers saw coming, though maybe perhaps they should have.
San Diego's reputation as a fast finisher was further enhanced with Sunday's 34-14 dismantling of Baltimore at Qualcomm Stadium, a victory that brought increased ambiguity to an already-muddled AFC pack in which the highly- credentialed Ravens had been making a strong case for the favorite's role. But after soundly dominating their well-regarded opponent in every phase, it's the Chargers who have swiftly and suddenly stamped themselves as a dark-horse Super Bowl contender, assuming they're actually able to play their way into the fray.
Sunday's emphatic result and three-game winning streak San Diego is now riding has re-established the Chargers as a viable player in the conference race, though their path to a possible division title remains an uphill climb. At 7-7, the Bolts still sit a game behind Cinderella Denver in the AFC West with two to play, and the Broncos would win out in a tie-breaker if both teams finished with nine victories. Denver travels to deflated Buffalo, losers of seven straight, this coming Saturday.
A Wild Card berth seems to be a more plausible avenue, but that would entail both the New York Jets and Cincinnati each having to lose at least one of their two remaining games.
While their fate remains uncertain, it has become abundantly clear that the Chargers are now a team no one wants to face, either in the playoffs or on the way there, and Sunday's demolition of the usually-sound Ravens offered a most convincing proof.
A revitalized Philip Rivers and the San Diego offense piled up 415 total yards on one of the league's premier stop units and became the first foe to score on its first five drives in Baltimore's 254-game history. The Chargers were just as impressive on the defensive side, amassing seven sacks of Joe Flacco and intercepting the rattled Ravens signal-caller twice on the night.
That awesome overall performance helped quell the doubts that San Diego's recent resurgence was merely the product of weak competition, with the back-to- back lopsided wins the team carried into Sunday's showdown having come against cupcakes Jacksonville and Buffalo.
"It was a challenge," Chargers linebacker Takeo Spikes said afterward. "People always say we haven't played anybody. The past two games, they say we won because [our opponents] weren't good football teams. We never looked at it that way."
Still, there's one question that has to be asked in regards to a team that had been labeled as one of the most puzzling underachievers prior to its outstanding stretch run.
What took so long?
Before getting well in a Monday night toasting of the lowly Jaguars on Dec. 5, the Chargers had lost six consecutive contests -- including stinging overtime setbacks to both the Broncos and fellow AFC West member Kansas City -- to seemingly fall out of playoff contention with a 4-7 record. Turnovers and shoddy protection from a makeshift offensive line were prime culprits to the downfall, with the normally-heedful Rivers throwing an uncustomary 10 interceptions over that rough patch while being sacked 15 times.
Injuries had an undesirable effect as well. The front wall lost its two left- side stalwarts in guard Kris Dielman and tackle Marcus McNeill by midseason, while field-stretching wide receiver Malcom Floyd sat out the final four games of the losing streak with a strained hip. The defense was also forced to carry on without its best pass rusher, outside linebacker Shaun Phillips, for four of those defeats due to a strained foot.
Floyd and Phillips both returned for the Jacksonville game, as did injured guards Louis Vasquez and Tyronne Green to an offensive line that was additionally stabilized by an astute waiver grab of sun-blocking tackle Jared Gaither, a onetime Ravens starter cut loose by Kansas City in late November after being relegated to seldom-used bench duty by the Chiefs (another of Todd Haley's curious depth-chart decisions that led to the just-deposed head coach's firing). In three games since the line was rearranged, Rivers has been sacked just twice and completed a razor-sharp 75 percent of his pass attempts with seven touchdowns and zero interceptions.
With Phillips back in the fray alongside the unheralded Antwan Barnes, another former Raven who terrorized his old team for a career-high four sacks on Sunday, the defense has yielded 306 yards or less in three straight weeks and forced six turnovers during the surge.
"I think you try to identify what keeps you from winning when we were in that situation," Chargers head coach Norv Turner said of the since-vanquished losing skid. "I think we knew what it was. Part of it, obviously, we got four starters back on offense and we got Shaun Philips back. We're playing better."
And it should be no surprise. San Diego sports a sensational 23-2 record in December games since Rivers replaced Drew Brees as its starting quarterback in 2006.
So now with history destined to repeat itself, the mystery over the season's final two weeks now lies in which past fortune the Chargers duplicate. Will this year be a carbon copy of 2008, when San Diego was considered dead and buried with a 4-8 record heading into December before winning four straight and edging out a collapsing Broncos squad for the AFC West crown? Or will it echo the frustrating failure of last season, when Turner's charges couldn't overcome an earlier lull and came up just short of reaching the playoffs despite a furious final scramble?
With this team, one can only wonder. But you can bet it will be entertaining.