A Bolt From the Blues

Rivers, Sproles lead Bolts to second round of playoffs.

Darren Sproles ran off the field clutching the game ball, leaving Peyton Manning to hang his head in frustration.

The San Diego Chargers outdid Manning for the second straight January, again turning to surprise stars to spark them along in the playoffs.

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Given more playing time because of LaDainian Tomlinson's groin injury, the speedy little Sproles scooted 22 yards for the winning score 6:20 into overtime and the Chargers beat the Colts 23-17 in an AFC wild-card game Saturday night.

Just like that, a Chargers team that sneaked into the playoffs at 8-8 eliminated the NFL's hottest team a day after Manning won his third Associated Press NFL MVP award.

Also keeping the Chargers in the game 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 after the Chargers ended the Colts' nine-game winning streak.

Sproles came up big on a night when the Chargers played the final 2½ quarters without Tomlinson, who stood on the sideline in obvious discomfort from what appears to be a serious groin injury.

Read "Chargers Victory Watched by All"

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.

"It's disappointing to lose a playoff game," said Manning, who two years ago led the Colts to a Super Bowl victory over the Chicago Bears. "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 earlier 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.

"We played hard till the end, but those guys played even harder all the way through the game," Colts safety Bob Sanders said.

It was San Diego's fifth straight win, and 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 just 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 here on Nov. 23.

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 in five years. The Chargers have won four of the six.

San Diego got its only sack at a key time, when Tim Dobbins dropped Manning at the Colts 1 on third down with 2 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 Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers.

Still, Manning caught the Chargers napping on a 72-yard touchdown play that for a while seemed as if 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. The Colts went ahead 10-7 on Adam Vinatieri's 43-yard field goal midway through the second period before Sproles' 9-yard run just before halftime put the Chargers ahead 14-10.

Manning was 25-of-42 for 310 yards. Rivers was 20-of-36 for 216 yards, with one interception.

Tomlinson was hurt a week earlier in a 52-21 rout of Denver.

"From the first run, it was evident that I just didn't have the burst," said Tomlinson, who gained 14 yards on the game's first play from scrimmage. "I couldn't put my foot on the ground and get through the hole the way I wanted to. I went as long as I could. After the TD run, it was at the point where I felt like I was making it worse."

Scifres had punts of 51 yards to the 10, 58 yards to the 15, 50 yards to the 3, 67 to the 5, 38 to the 9 and the 52 to the 1 with 2:41 to play.

"I think that their punter is the MVP of the game," Colts running back Dominic Rhodes said. "He did a real good job of putting us deep in our territory, and their defense did a good job of keeping us there."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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