SAN DIEGO — It didn’t come in a snowstorm or clinch a Super Bowl, but Adam Vinatieri’s last-second field goal Sunday was just what the Indianapolis Colts needed.
“That’s why he’s the best kicker around—of all time, in my opinion,” quarterback Peyton Manning said, minutes after Vinatieri’s 51-yarder lifted the Colts to a 23-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Indianapolis has won four in a row.
The kick was sweet vindication for Vinatieri, who had a chance to secure a victory here a year ago but pushed a 29-yarder wide right in the final two minutes of a two-point loss.
He swears that he wasn’t thinking of that kick when he punched this one through.
“I heard a few people chirping to me about it in pregame warmup,” Vinatieri said. “But once you get out there, it’s a new day, a new game, a new year.”
For the Chargers, it was the same old result. They dropped to 4-7, with those losses coming by a total of 28 points. Four of those defeats came in the final 24 seconds.
Making the loss even more painful to the Chargers, they had a chance to make up ground on first-place Denver in the AFC West because the Broncos were upset by Oakland earlier in the day. That was not to be, however, as the Chargers once again were undone by mistakes down the stretch.
Trailing by three with slightly more than three minutes left, San Diego marched into Indianapolis territory with time and momentum on its side. But the drive stalled — thanks in part to a pivotal false-start call on guard Kris Dielman — and, instead of going for it on fourth and 2 from the Colts’ 29, the Chargers opted to try to tie. Nate Kaeding kicked a 47-yard field goal for a 20-20 deadlock with 1:30 to play.
It’s perilous business putting the ball back in Manning’s hands with that much time on the clock. His team had lost three in a row to San Diego, including a divisional playoff game last winter at the RCA Dome. The last time Manning played at Qualcomm, he had a career-high six interceptions, although he recovered enough to put the Colts in position to win.
This time, Manning completed 32 of 44 for 255 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Statistics-wise, he was edged by San Diego’s Philip Rivers, who completed 24 of 31 for 288 yards with two touchdowns.
But statistics don’t decide games. This one was won by an All-Pro quarterback and a kicker who once was a cornerstone of the New England Patriots’ dynasty.
When Manning took over in a tie game with more than a minute to play, Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, watching from the sideline, turned to teammate Darren Sproles with a mournful message: “We gave him too much time.”
Said Tomlinson afterward: “In that situation, Peyton has done it over and over again. They know what they like to do in that situation. They know what plays they like to call. They know how they’re going to get it done.”
Sure enough, Manning moved his team into winning position on the final drive, with the clutch play being a 14-yard completion to Marvin Harrison on fourth down after the Colts came up one chain link short of a first.
Over and over this season, the Chargers have come up short. Tomlinson is as baffled as anyone why this team, which is loaded with veterans and made it to the AFC championship game last season, suddenly has a habit of gagging with games on the line.
“For some reason, when it’s crunch time, instead of just stepping up and saying, `I’m going to make the play,’ it’s like we get nervous and just try to hold on and hope that we get it right,” said Tomlinson, whose team has lost four of five.
“It’s a little surprising. But who knows what the reason is? Sometimes, when it’s happened to you over and over again, sometimes the lack of confidence in those situations gets to you. It’s just human nature.”