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NFL Divisional Playoffs: Chargers choke one away

Chargers screw up royally in upset loss to Jets, while the other three favorites cruise.

By Jim Buzinski
Outsports.com

How saw the divisional round of the playoffs:

I don't have a whole lot to say about three lopsided games this weekend (Saints and Vikings each won by 31, while the Colts won by 17), but for the second week in a row, the best was saved for last - Jets 17, Chargers 14 in a terrific, exciting nail-biter that saw a huge choke job by San Diego. The Chargers had entered the game having won 11 games in a row, but lousy coaching, lousy field goal kicking and stupid penalties doomed them and made this look a lot like their 2006 playoff debacle against the Patriots.

riverspouts300
This screen capture pretty well sums up the day for Philip Rivers and the Chargers.

Goat No. 1 is kicked Nate Kaeding, who had made 69 straight field goals from 40 yards or closer. On Sunday, he was 0-3, with two of the misses from 36 and 40 yards. Wrote one Chargers fan on a blog: "He's lucky we're not south american football fans. He wouldn't have made it out of the parking lot alive." This was déjà vu -- In 2004, Kaeding missed a 40-yard field goal in overtime that would have beaten the Jets in a game New York went on to win.

Goat No. 1-A is coach Norv Turner. I heard a Vegas insider say this week that bookies account for Turner's coaching ineptness when they set a pointspread and I can see why. His play calling was erratic and his team was mentally not ready, committing 10 penalties for 87 yards (four them were personal fouls). Two of the penalties illustrated how undisciplined the Chargers were - one was a 15-yard personal foul for a head butt after the play by Shaun Phillips that gave the Jets a first-and-goal inside the 10 and set up the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter. The second was on receiver Vincent Jackson for stupidly kicking the challenge flag and drawing an unsportsmanlike penalty late in the game. The Chargers did a lot of woofing all game, but lost their poise in the clutch. A lot of that comes down to coaching and having your players ready.

Turner's biggest blunder, though, was trying an onsides kick with 2:15 left, after the Chargers had just cut the lead to 17-14. The Jets recovered and got the ball inside the Chargers' 40, which allowed them the luxury of icing the game on a 4th-and-1 run. As CBS' Phil Simms accurately pointed out, had San Diego kicked deep (with a timeout and the two-minute warning to stop the clock), the Jets would have been forced to punt on fourth down in their own territory and given the Bolts about a minute to mount a game-tying drive.

Goat I-AA was QB Philip Rivers, a woofer when things are going well and a whiner when they're not. He threw two interceptions on back-to-back passes, the killer being one from his end zone that he tossed right to Jets safety Jim Leonhard. It gave the Jets the ball at the Chargers' 16 in a game where New York had trouble mounting any offense. Rivers needed to play smart and protect the ball at this critical juncture, but he threw one of the worst picks you'll see.

I was getting sick of the media fawning over a Chargers team I thought was good but not great. Before the game, Fox's Michael Strahan basically ignored the Jets game and said the Chargers would beat the Colts in the AFC title game; so much for "experts."

The Chargers on paper have the talent to be a Super Bowl champion, but they tend to fall apart in the clutch as we saw against the Jets. Said Chargers linebacker Stephen Cooper: "It's happened over and over again. We have the talent. We have the team. Everyone knows that. But when it comes to the playoff games, you have to show up on that day and put it all together to win games. We didn't do that. We didn't show up. Guys weren't mentally ready. We made stupid mistakes."

Last laugh: Colts defensive lineman Raheem Brock (himself sick of all the Charger love) posted this on Twitter: "Did the chargers just lose? Not the hottest team in the nfl...that's not possible!"

Trends: I wrote two weeks ago to ignore people who used "momentum" as a guide to the playoffs, since that is a myth. And this weekend proved me right. The Saints had lost their last three games, the Colts their last two and the Vikings three of their last five. The Jets had won three in a row, but the last two of the regular season were against teams resting their starters. In contrast, the Chargers had won 11 straight and the Cowboys four, and we saw how that turned out. All that matters is how you play in a specific playoff game, not what happened before.

Championship game picks:

AFC: Jets (11-7) at Colts (15-2)
How weird. In Week 16, the Colts pulled Peyton Manning and most of the starters in the third quarter against the Jets, while leading 15-10 and set off a firestorm. Had the Colts kept playing and won, they would have knocked the Jets out of the playoffs. The Colts are the first team to ever play the fifth (Jets) and sixth seed (Ravens) in a season.

The Jets are very similar to the Ravens' team the Colts beat, 20-3, Saturday, not a surprise since Jets coach Rex Ryan was Baltimore's defensive coordinator the prior few seasons. Expect a lot of blitzes and stunts to try and keep Manning unsettled. But Manning has had success against Ryan defenses in the past and I don't see him getting rattled.

This will be a war and the Jets need some breaks to win. I can't envision the Colts self-destructing like the Chargers did and they have overall too much talent. Plus, only two AFC teams have ever won three playoff games on the road in one season. I see a close game for a while but Indy prevails. Colts 23, Jets 10.

NFC: Vikings (13-4) at Saints (14-3)
ABBF (Anybody But Brett Favre). It was nauseating seeing Favre jump up and down and celebrate a cheap, BS touchdown pass on fourth down with the Vikings leading Dallas, 27-3, and less than two minutes to go. But class and dignity have never been Favre's strong suits. Guess you know whom I want to win!

If the Vikings' defensive front can dominate the Saints like they did the Cowboys, Minnesota wins. But the Vikes are a much-less successful team on the road, having lost their last three away from home, which included giving up 36 points to the Bears. I think Favre will have success moving the ball, but I expect at least one horrible Favre-like playoff pick. That will be enough for Drew Brees and the Saints to win a tight one. Saints 31, Vikings 24.