Ever in unison, Chargers players danced and sang as they dodged discarded tape, equipment bags, and one another in the cramped locker room of M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday after their 23-17 wild-card victory over the Baltimore Ravens. A playoff win was something new for most of them.
For those who had won elsewhere or had been with the Chargers for their last postseason win, in 2013, it was a joyous reminder of what’s possible when an innovative game plan is backed by relentless will, persistence and a blissful ignorance of history.
In previous seasons, the outcome might have been different.
The Chargers might not have pulled off the seven-defensive back scheme that stifled precocious Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.
The fourth-quarter drive Jackson led could have rekindled horrors from the past.
The old Chargers might have missed a tackle here, shanked a field goal there, and a season would have been lost.
Not this group, and not on this day.
Fueled by kicker Michael Badgley’s five-for-six performance, the Chargers advanced to the AFC divisional round Sunday against the New England Patriots — who are 8-0-0 at home — because the visitors put to use every experience they went through this season.
Their ability to win in hostile places, both on the road and in the unfriendly atmosphere they’ve often faced in Carson, was a vital asset in their noisy surroundings Sunday. It will be useful again next week in Foxborough, Mass.
“Roger Goodell doesn’t want it to come back to us, that’s all I can say,” Chargers tackle Russell Okung said of the NFL commissioner.
Being on the road has unified them, it seems. And with greater depth and superb game planning Sunday, it translated to their seventh straight road victory and their most important.
They learned from their 22-10 loss to Baltimore on Dec. 22 how unique and devastating Jackson could be offensively, but this time they were able to hold the Ravens to 69 total net yards in the first half, and 229 yards overall.
Not until the fourth quarter, when it became clear Ravens coach John Harbaugh wouldn't switch to veteran Joe Flacco, did Jackson begin to have an impact as the Chargers defense played deeper in attempt to stop quick scoring strikes.
Jackson had said earlier this week he anticipated celebrating his 22nd birthday with a triumph.
“This win, I can taste it,” he said. “It’s like Thanksgiving, with the food, sweet potato pie. I’m trying to taste that victory for my birthday on Monday.”
Instead, the Chargers fed him humble pie.
“I feel like I played poorly,” Jackson said. “I feel like there were a lot of things we could have done, I could have done, to put us in a better situation.”
The Chargers didn’t let him get into advantageous situations. And they didn’t slip back into their old, self-destructive habits.
“I think this team, we’re a little more weathered, in a good way,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “We’ve just been through a lot. We’ve been all over the place: We’ve been to London [where they defeated the Tennessee Titans], we’ve been everywhere on the road and won, and we’ve won with defense, we’ve won with offense, we’ve won with kick returns, we’ve won with field goals.
“I don’t know that we can be put in a situation and go, ‘Oh, gosh, how are our guys going to respond?’ That doesn’t mean you always win. But I don’t really know anything that can come our way that can make us go, ‘Help!’ ”
It’s understandable that fans in San Diego have vilified owner Dean Spanos for moving the Chargers and jamming them into a market that has largely rejected them. But this is an easy team to like, a team that took a significant step away from its less-than-glorious playoff past.
Advancing in the playoffs, Spanos said, “is not about me. It’s about the team and the organization. I think it says a lot about our organization and the resiliency. We’ve overcome a lot of negativity in the last couple years but it shows how focused they are.”
Question is, how far can they go? Rivers recalled facing the Patriots in the AFC Championship game after the 2007 season, so long ago but still fresh in his mind.
“I went in there at 26 and go back in there at 37 and with a different team,” he said, almost as if he didn’t believe he got another chance. Returning to Foxborough, he said, will be fun.
“I mean, knowing the challenge, it is because you’re going against a Bill Belichick defense, a Bill Belichick team, and a Tom Brady team and you’re talking about arguably the greatest of all time,” Rivers said. “I’m not playing Tom, but it’s always special.”
Rivers guessed the Patriots had played in eight or nine straight conference championships. It’s actually seven.
“So we’ll see if we can stop the streak,” Rivers said, “and we’ll regroup and prepare and be there next Sunday.”