INDIANAPOLIS – Gone — Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Adam Vinatieri and the rest of the Colts.
By stunning Indianapolis, the San Diego Chargers just knocked off New England's biggest road block to the Super Bowl.
Now San Diego must avoid a repeat of its last performance at New England.
That will be especially difficult without an injured LaDainian Tomlinson, who departed in the first half with a bruised left knee, and starting quarterback Philip Rivers, who went out in the third quarter with a damaged right knee in the Chargers' stunning 28-24 victory Sunday.
With Billy Volek at quarterback and Michael Turner as the main runner, San Diego went 78 yards on eight plays, with Volek sneaking in from the 1 with 4:50 remaining for the lead. The Chargers' big-play defense then held on downs at its 7, and stopped Indy again in the final moments to preserve their eighth straight win.
To make it nine in a row and advance to their second Super Bowl — the other was a loss to San Francisco after the 1994 season — the Chargers will need all the resourcefulness they showed at Indianapolis. Being undermanned against undefeated New England hardly is an enticing prospect.
Still, with All-Pro cornerback Antonio Cromartie getting an interception and fumble recovery, and linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips plaguing Manning, the Chargers showed they have the ability to throw off any offense. Maybe even the most prolific attack in NFL history.
The Chargers didn't come close against the Patriots in Week 2, falling 38-14. That was the beginning of a slide to 5-5 for San Diego, but the Chargers (13-5) are rolling now.
"A lot's happened since then," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "We'll definitely start all over on the preparations. It's like it's a new team."
It was a gutty showing by Rivers, who threw for three scores — he banged his right knee on a 56-yard screen pass TD by Darren Sproles to end the third quarter. And Turner, who could be a starter elsewhere but usually sits behind league rushing leader Tomlinson, gave the offense the balance it desperately needed in the late stages of the upset, rushing for 71 yards.
The Chargers' opportunistic defense, which led the league in takeaways (48) and turnover margin (plus-24), grabbed two interceptions — both on tipped balls — and a fumble. While San Diego couldn't stop Manning's offense from steadily marching downfield most of the game, it could make the key plays that get you closer to the Super Bowl.
Still, if Tomlinson is limited or sidelined, how much chance do the Chargers have against the perfect Patriots? Not to mention perhaps missing Rivers or tight end Antonio Gates, who courageously played much of the day on a dislocated toe.
For the Colts (13-4), it was a bitterly quick elimination from the postseason.
A year ago, they won three playoff games, then beat Chicago in the Super Bowl. They couldn't recapture their touch on offense or defense this time, and a defense that allowed the fewest points during the season wore down against the equally physical Chargers.
Still, the Colts went in front 24-21 when Gonzalez slipped past Marlon McCree down the left sideline to complete a 55-yard scoring play with 10:07 to go. Chargers coach Norv Turner challenged that Gonzalez stepped out of bounds at about the 25, but the play stood.
So San Diego's backups then won it, helped by a 27-yard screen pass to rookie Legedu Naanee and a 15-yard face-mask penalty against Indianapolis cornerback Marlin Jackson.
Manning did throw for 402 yards, completing 33 of his 48 throws, but both interceptions killed deep scoring threats.
Rivers was 14-of-19 for 264 yards, and Volek went 3-of-4 for 48 yards in his clutch relief role. Vincent Jackson became Rivers' top target with Gates struggling, and had seven catches for 93 yards and a score.
Indianapolis lost only six fumbles all season, but Harrison, who hadn't been hit in almost three months while sidelined by a knee injury, was stripped on his first reception by Cromartie. McCree recovered at the San Diego 22, stymying a lengthy drive begun with Kelvin Hayden's interception.
San Diego capitalized with a 78-yard march, including three third-down conversions. Jackson beat double-coverage to the corner of the end zone for his 14-yard score on third down, making it 7-7.
The first Indy scoring series was vintage Manning. He picked apart the Chargers with short timing throws to Joseph Addai and Reggie Wayne, who picked up 8 yards on a fourth-and-2 at the San Diego 37. Two plays later, tight end Dallas Clark displayed moves like Wayne, using a double fake on Clinton Hart for a 25-yard touchdown catch.
Indy went on top 10-7 on Vinatieri's season-best 47-yard field goal, then the Chargers, now minus L.T., got to the Colts 31 behind Turner, who gained 25 yards on the march. But Nate Kaeding's 48-yard field goal try bounced off the right upright.
In the final seconds of the half, Manning's fourth incompletion in 22 throws, a deflection by Wayne on a high pass, was picked off by Cromartie, the league leader in interceptions. He got several blocks, including one on Manning, in running it back to the end zone, but a block by Eric Weddle was ruled holding, negating the long touchdown.
Norv Turner was livid at the call, berating the officials after what appeared a simple legal push by Weddle, who also had the other San Diego interception.
Rivers found Chris Chambers with a 30-yard TD pass to open the second half, and the Colts came back on Wayne's 9-yard sideline reception on which he dived to the pylon. Initially ruled out-of-bounds, Wayne was given the touchdown after the Colts challenged.