INDIANAPOLIS -- To the surprise of many people who follow the NFL, the San Diego Chargers, not the Indianapolis Colts, will meet the New England Patriots on Sunday for the AFC championship and the right to play in the Super Bowl.
But the Chargers insisted they did not stun themselves with a 28-24 victory over the defending champion Colts yesterday in the final game in the 24-year history of the RCA Dome and perhaps the last game for Tony Dungy as coach of the Colts.
San Diego coach Norv Turner seemed defiantly proud that his team trailed four times before scoring the winning touchdown on a quarterback sneak by backup Billy Volek with 4:50 remaining.
"I think we put that thing to rest; that's done forever," Turner said of Chargers' reputation for failing after trailing. "I've never been around a more gutsy performance."
Part of the guts came from substitutes in key positions, and that challenge could continue.
The Chargers (13-5) might have to play the undefeated Patriots (17-0) in Foxborough, Mass., without quarterback Philip Rivers and running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who left yesterday's game with knee injuries.
"They are going to be listed as questionable," Turner said.
Rivers threw three touchdown passes before leaving after three quarters with a right knee injury. He completed 14 of 19 passes for 264 yards.
Tomlinson did not return after leaving in the second quarter with a bruised left knee.
"I think I'll be ready," Tomlinson said of the game against the Patriots, who defeated San Diego, 38-14, in Week 2. Tomlinson carried seven times for 28 yards.
His backup, Michael Turner, carried 17 times for 71 yards.
Even tight end Antonio Gates, who returned from a toe injury to catch two passes, worried that he had aggravated his injury. "I can't guarantee I'll play the next game," he said.
The Chargers won their eighth consecutive game despite three touchdown passes and 402 passing yards by Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. But Manning also threw two interceptions on tipped balls, and receiver Marvin Harrison lost a fumble, leading to San Diego's first touchdown. All three turnovers were in Chargers territory; two came inside the 20.
The Colts had the ball twice in the final five minutes, trailing by four. On the first of those possessions, they drove from their 23-yard line to a first down on the San Diego 9, but lost possession on downs.
On their last possession, the Colts started at their 32 but moved the ball only 5 yards on a short pass completion followed by three incompletions.
Dungy has said he had not decided whether to return for another season. He went through the same debate last season after the Colts beat the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl. But Dungy's son recently enrolled in a high school in Tampa, Fla., where the family used to live.
Dungy said yesterday's loss would not affect his decision, adding that he soon would discuss the matter with his wife and with the Colts' owner, Jim Irsay.
"We are all disappointed now," Dungy said, "and we are looking forward to next year and improving things."
Among the spectacular plays was a 56-yard touchdown pass from Rivers to Darren Sproles, who ran down the left sideline after catching a screen pass to give the Chargers a 21-17 lead at the end of the third quarter.
The Colts came right back as Manning connected with Anthony Gonzalez on a 55-yard pass play to give Indianapolis the lead, 24-21, with 10:07 remaining.
But Volek, a backup for most of his career, led a drive of 78 yards on eight plays that ended with his 1-yard touchdown run.
"It's kind of anticlimactic," Volek said with a smile of his run, crediting the offensive line's blocking as he leaned forward. He compared it with Tomlinson's "leaping 20 feet into the air over the pile" in last week's victory over the Tennessee Titans. By contrast, Volek said, the sneak play was boring.
"It's like, 'Uh-huh, OK, touchdown,' " he said.
San Diego 0 7 14 7-28
Indianapolis 7 3 7 7-24
First quarter Ind-Clark 25 pass from Manning (Vinatieri kick), 9:13.
Second quarter SD-V.Jackson 14 pass from Rivers (Kaeding kick), 8:38. Ind-FG Vinatieri 46, 5:10.
Third quarter SD-Chambers 30 pass from Rivers (Kaeding kick), 11:33. Ind-Wayne 9 pass from Manning (Vinatieri kick), 2:53. SD-Sproles 56 pass from Rivers (Kaeding kick), :00.
Fourth quarter Ind-Gonzalez 55 pass from Manning (Vinatieri kick), 10:07. SD-Volek 1 run (Kaeding kick), 4:50. A-56,950.
First downs 20 29
Total Net Yards 411 446
Rushes-yards 30-99 18-44
Passing 312 402
Punt Returns 0-0 3-46
Kickoff Returns 4-103 5-129
Interceptions Ret. 2-30 1-1
Comp-Att-Int 17-23-1 33-48-2
Sacked-Yards Lost 0-0 0-0
Punts 3-59.0 1-49.0
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 1-1
Penalties-Yards 10-79 5-54
Time of Possession 29:39 30:21 Rushing-San Diego, Turner 17-71, Tomlinson 7-28, Sproles 1-1, Rivers 2-0, Volek 3-(minus 1). Indianapolis, Addai 13-43, Keith 4-7, Manning 1-(minus 6). Passing-San Diego, Rivers 14-19-1-264, Volek 3-4-0-48. Indianapolis, Manning 33-48-2-402. Receiving-San Diego, Jackson 7-93, Chambers 3-67, Gates 2-28, Sproles 1-56, Naanee 1-27, Tomlinson 1-20, Davis 1-18, Manumaleuna 1-3. Indianapolis, Addai 9-67, Wayne 7-76, Clark 6-95, Gonzalez 4-79, Harrison 2-27, Keith 2-23, Utecht 1-20, Aromashodu 1-13, Fletcher 1-2. Missed field goal-San Diego, Kaeding 48 (WR).