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Road to Redemption

All but out of it a month ago, the Chargers forged past the Colts and on to a divisional-round matchup with mighty Pittsburgh

PHILIP RIVERSdrives a Ford pickup truck with a custom-made bumper sticker on the back windowthat reads, THEY'LL WALK IF YOU LET 'EM. It was a message that former Chargerslinebacker Carlos Polk used to shout at the end of long practices on hot summerafternoons when he knew that some players might be tempted to loll through thefinal special teams drills. Rivers became so taken with the saying that helogged on to early this season and had it printed up. Standingin the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot last Saturday night after the Chargers'23--17 wild-card defeat of the Colts in overtime, Rivers said, "That bumpersticker has meant different things to me at different times. But right now itmakes me think about when we were 4--8, and we could have walked the rest ofthe way. We didn't let each other walk."

The Chargers madethat choice as a group on Nov. 30, after they'd lost to the Atlanta Falcons athome to fall to 4--8. When coach Norv Turner finished addressing the team,running back LaDainian Tomlinson stepped to the middle of the locker room."We're not going to quit," he said. "We're not theRaiders."

San Diego becamethe first 4--8 team in NFL history to go on to make the playoffs and, onSaturday night at Qualcomm, the first 8--8 team to win an AFC playoff game. OnSunday in Pittsburgh they'll try to continue their run when they meet theSteelers in the AFC divisional round. "It's amazing how quickly peopleforget you were 8--8," said Rivers. The regular season became obsolete themoment Rivers called the play 30 Iso on the first possession of OT. He handedoff to Darren Sproles, the 5'6" second-string running back, whojitterbugged 22 yards to the end zone and juked the Colts right into theoff-season. Just like that, Peyton Manning, named league MVP a day earlier, wasout of the playoffs, and for the second year in a row the Chargers wereresponsible for his exit.

As Rivers sprintedoff the field, fans serenaded him with chants of "MVP," despite thefact that he wasn't even voted to the Pro Bowl. Although he led the NFL inpasser rating this season (105.5), and his 34 touchdown passes broke DanFouts's single-season Chargers record, Rivers is still dogged by two bits ofvideo from the 2007 season that keep turning up on highlight shows. In one he'sbarking at Denver quarterback Jay Cutler, and in the other he's trading barbswith Colts fans during last year's playoff game. Asked whether those clips costRivers a trip to Hawaii, Chargers broadcaster and former special teams ace HankBauer said, "Absolutely. And it's a crying shame because this guy is themost miscast player in the league."

The perception ofRivers as a renegade is comical for those who know him. He's a devout Catholicwho doesn't curse, a country boy from Alabama who wears cowboy boots and PigglyWiggly T-shirts celebrating the Southern supermarket chain. Rivers met hiswife, Tiffany, in the eighth grade, and when he wanted to propose to her atN.C. State, he first asked his coaches for permission. "He didn't want tobe a distraction," says Todd Stroud, then a coach with the Wolfpack who isnow at Florida State. Leading up to the 2004 draft, Rivers didn't demonstratethe mobility of Ben Roethlisberger or the arm strength of Eli Manning. But hischaracter and leadership skills were off the charts.

"What otherpeople see as mouthy, we see as passionate," says right tackle JeromeyClary. "When you play with passion and fire, you can get misunderstood.That's what's happened to Philip. But I wouldn't change him for the world. Hisleadership has a lot to do with where we are right now."

Rivers promisedthe Chargers he'd cut off his exchanges with opposing fans, and he has made itthrough this season without incident. But he's still animated when comparedwith the league's many robo-quarterbacks. "Certainly you want to beunderstood," Rivers says. "But you have to earn that. The only way tochange perception is to keep being yourself. People will eventually see you andthink, Maybe this guy is just having fun. Maybe he just likes to play thegame."

The worst thingthe Chargers might say about Rivers is that he can't relax. On Dec. 21 SanDiego beat the Buccaneers in Tampa but still needed the Bills to win at Denverto stay eligible for the playoffs. On the charter home Rivers paced the aisles,starting at the back of the plane, where assistant p.r. director Scott Yoffehad a Sony Walkman pressed to the window to pick up a radio signal of theBills-Broncos game. When Buffalo linebacker Kawika Mitchell intercepted a passwith 5:42 left in the fourth quarter and the Bills ahead 30--23, Yoffebellowed, "Interception!" The cabin erupted.

But as the 757flew over the Gulf of Mexico, Yoffe lost his signal. Rivers made his way to thefront of the plane, where teammates were watching seatback TVs, surfing betweenvarious ESPN channels and NBC. "I was going crazy," Rivers says. "Ikept asking everybody, 'Where's the ball? Where's the dang ball?' We heard theBroncos were on the 20, and I'm like, 'Their own 20 or the Bills' 20? Are theyfixin' to score or not?'"

When Clary foundthe final score on NBC—30--23, Bills—it triggered a celebration that likelyviolated several FAA regulations. Players spilled into the aisles, hugging andhigh-fiving. Some threw pillows. One took off his shirt. General manager A.J.Smith, who has spent 24 years in the NFL and went to four Super Bowls as ascout and an executive with the Bills, called the flight one of the greatestexperiences of his career. "For the entire Buffalo organization, dinner anddrinks at the combine are on me," Smith says.

Through the firstthree months of this season the Chargers were bemoaning their bad luck, whichincluded seven losses by a touchdown or less, and four in the final 30 seconds.(They also lost All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman to a season-ending kneeinjury after Week 1.) But their fortunes clearly changed. Courtesy of thatgenerous assist from the Bills, and a historic meltdown by the Broncos, theChargers became the first team ever to erase a three-game division deficit withthree to play.

Now San Diego isonce again trying to steer through January with two of its stars on themend—Tomlinson has a severely strained groin, and tight end Antonio Gates has ahigh-right-ankle sprain. But with Turner calling more plays for Rivers, theChargers are no longer Tomlinson's team, and for the second postseason in arow, his backup is finding an opportunity. Last year the beneficiary wasMichael Turner, who landed a free-agent contract with Atlanta and this seasonfinished second in the league in rushing. Now it's fourth-year man Sproles,another unrestricted free agent auditioning for a payday. A pass-catchingtailback who returns punts and kickoffs, Sproles amassed 328 all-purpose yardsagainst the Colts, third most in playoff history.

When Sprolesfumbled into the end zone late in the third quarter with the Chargers trailingby three, Rivers wondered what kind of pick-me-up he should give his youngback. "But when I'm in that situation, I'd rather nobody say anything,"Rivers said, "so I left him alone." On the next drive, though, Riverstold Sproles, "We'll get it back right here." Then Rivers threw aninterception in the end zone. These are the 2008--09 Chargers: They makemistakes, and they overcome them.

After Sproles hadatoned and the Chargers had advanced, Rivers reflected on life at 4--8."You're just thinking, Be thankful we're in the NFL. Be thankful we canplay football. Now let's go have some fun." Sounds like next season'sbumper sticker.


Photograph by Robert Beck

SPRINT TO THE FINISH With Tomlinson sidelined, Sproles dashed 22 yards for the game-winning run in overtime, capping a performance in which he piled up 328 all-purpose yards, third most in playoff history.



KEEP ON ROLLIN' Rivers failed to earn a Pro Bowl invite, but he's content with a shot at San Diego's sixth straight win.



BOLTED SHUT The play of Matt Wilhelm (57), Steve Gregory (28) and the D charged up linebacker Stephen Cooper (left).



[See caption above]



UNPLUGGED San Diego again ended Manning's playoffs.