Four games into the 2007 NFL season, the San Diego Chargers were on their way to being one of the most disappointing teams of the year.
Quarterback Philip Rivers looked lost and lacked pocket poise in losses to New England, Green Bay and Kansas City. LaDainian Tomlinson averaged 2.28 yards per carry in San Diego's first three games. The firing of coach Marty Schottenheimer and the hiring of Norv Turner appeared to be a colossal mistake by Chargers general manager A.J. Smith.
San Diego bottomed out when it gave up an NFL single-game record 296 rushing yards to Adrian Peterson in a 35-17 loss to the Vikings in Week 9.
So what are the Chargers doing here, playing in the AFC championship game against the undefeated and highly favored New England Patriots on Sunday? With a new coaching staff and the lingering disappointment of a playoff loss to the Patriots last year, it just took time for everything to click for the Chargers this season.
"We weren't clicking on all cylinders at that time offensively, defensively because things were new to us," Tomlinson said shortly after San Diego stunned the Super Bowl champion Colts on Sunday. "Coaches and the things that we were trying to do on the field, it was new."
New is a good way to describe these Chargers.
San Diego isn't the same team that was blasted 38-14 by the Patriots in Week 2. The Chargers have won eight straight games. Their only loss in their last 10 games came against a tough Jacksonville team that gave the Patriots all they could handle for three quarters in Saturday's divisional playoff round.
The guys who took much of the heat for the Chargers' slow start Rivers, Tomlinson, Turner and Smith have all played a part in getting San Diego to its first conference championship game since 1994.
The contributions of Turner and Tomlinson go hand-in-hand. Turner used Tomlinson as a workhorse down the stretch, as Tomlinson had four consecutive games of rushing for more than 100 yards and scoring at least one touchdown. Tomlinson suffered a knee injury against the Colts but expects to play against the Patriots on Sunday.
Rivers, listed as questionable for the AFC championship game with a knee injury, played with more confidence as the year progressed. Some of his improvement can be attributed to the emergence of receiver Vincent Jackson, who seemed to have hands of stone in San Diego's first few games. He came through with several clutch catches in the Chargers' 28-24 win over the Colts on Sunday.
Smith also deserves credit for the team's turnaround. His trade for former Dolphins receiver Chris Chambers (for a second-round pick in October) gave Rivers a new weapon and added a deep threat to San Diego's offense.
Few people outside of San Diego believe the Chargers have a realistic shot at defeating the Patriots. San Diego is the first team to be made a double-digit underdog by oddsmakers in the AFC championship game since 2001. That was the year the Patriots shocked the Steelers in Pittsburgh and went on to win their first Super Bowl.
Perhaps that's a good omen for the 'Bolts."Seventeen have tried and it hasn't happened," Rivers said of the Patriots' 17-0 record. "We think it can happen."
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Chargers at Patriots
HOW THEY GOT HERE: The Chargers clinched the AFC West championship when they beat Detroit 51-14 on Dec. 16. They overcame a sluggish start to defeat the Tennessee Titans 17-6 in the wild-card round. In the divisional playoffs, they scored a major upset by defeating the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts, 28-24
LOCAL TIES: Eric Weddle: Utah's former Mr. Everything came up big for the Chargers during the regular season, and even more so in the divisional round of the playoffs. His interception of a Peyton Manning pass at the Chargers' 2-yard-line in the third quarter was one of the game's biggest plays.
Ryon Bingham: The Alta High graduate has become a quality backup for the Chargers on the defensive line. He recorded one tackle in their win over the Colts last week.Marques Harris: The Southern Utah graduate has mostly been a backup this season, but he put together an impressive effort against the Colts on Sunday. He recorded two tackles and a sack and also had a special teams tackle.
L.T. RECHARGED: San Diego obviously needs a healthy LaDainian Tomlinson to have any chance of upsetting New England. When Tomlinson struggles, so do the Chargers. He averaged 2.28 yards per carry in San Diego's first three games. But he got back to his old self during the regular season, as he rushed for more than 100 yards in six games and finished with 18 touchdowns. His 947 rushing yards in Weeks 8-17 led the NFL.