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Elements of surprise: Chargers continue improbable ride with win over Bengals

Elements of surprise: Chargers continue improbable ride with win over Bengals

CINCINNATI – You live in San Diego and weather reports aren't much of a focus. One day of perfect bleeds into the next until you just expect 73 and sunny. And then it magically appears. This week, though, weather talk was everything around the San Diego Chargers facility.

The Chargers' wild-card game here in Ohio was supposed to come in the middle of some kind of massive winter blast – snow, freeze, cold, wind, you name it. At various times, predictions called for six or eight inches of accumulation by the end of the game.

It was going to be brutal, everyone said. Too brutal for a warm-weather team to deal with, let alone San Diego, which needed a four-game win streak and plenty of help just to make the playoffs.

Then kickoff arrived, and for three quarters the weather reports were bunk. Temperatures hovered around 40 degrees. There wasn't a drop of precipitation. The sun even made a couple of appearances.

And the Chargers felt … cheated. Not relieved. Not pleased. Cheated. Until the fourth quarter when a cold, winter rain came to Paul Brown Stadium and linebacker Donald Butler looked up and said, "Yeah, it's finally raining. Let's go."

"Honestly, that's what you dream about," Butler said. "Fourth quarter, NFL playoffs, elements start coming, it starts raining, you're on the road. You can't invent a better scenario than that."

At this point, just assume that pretty much everything everyone says about the Chargers is wrong. They can't handle the weather. They can't handle a great offense. They can't deal with pressure. They can't advance in the playoffs. They can't …

Whatever, they say. Just keep saying it.

"I love it," Butler said. "I love it, and I think this whole team loves it. Go ahead and write us off, say all the negative things you want."

San Diego went on the road Sunday, under the rain, and won a fifth consecutive game, 27-10 over the Bengals. The Chargers trailed at halftime only to win going away, but isn't that the story of the season?

They were once 5-7 – with losses to Oakland, Washington and Houston. Now they don't care who is up next, they just assume they'll win.

"If we play our 'A' game," linebacker Melvin Ingram said, "everybody is vulnerable."

That includes Sunday's trip to Denver, where the AFC's top seed and Peyton Manning are waiting. Almost no one will pick the Chargers to win. All sorts of time will be spent looking ahead to the supposedly inevitable New England-Denver AFC title game clash. Sure, the Chargers beat the Bengals, but that's the Bengals. And, sure, the Chargers won in Denver on Dec. 12, but that's the regular season.

"Even when we beat Denver before, it was [about] 'what Denver didn't do, not what we did,' " Butler said. "I think as a team, we're just embracing it and we're running with it."

How far the Chargers run is anyone's guess, but the most notable thing about them is this is finally the team they thought they'd be all season long.

The team has come together and is versatile in its ability to run behind a violent offensive line (196 yards, two touchdowns on Sunday) or ride the arm of quarterback Philip Rivers (12-of-16 passing for 128 yards and a TD) or a stand-up defense (four turnovers).

September and October don't count anymore.

"I think some of those early games, some of those losses, it wasn't what the teams were doing, it was us," Butler said. "And we knew that. We just never gave up on ourselves. It's huge. That's what carried us."

Throughout the locker room, credit was given to 41-year-old rookie head coach Mike McCoy, who took over a team with a recent history of falling short and convinced it to find a way to make one extra play, win one more game.

These aren't your older brother's Chargers. There is a spirit of self-determination driving everything. There is a belief they have enough to win now. It's not just that Rivers proudly wears a seashell bolo tie postgame – and speaks with boyish enthusiasm (that belies his 10-year veteran status) about each play – that says they don't care about what anyone else thinks.

"We're just worried about ourselves right now," McCoy said. "We said that all week long: 'It's about us.' "

"It starts with Coach," Butler said.

"Before the game we all said it, 'We're all we got … we're all we need,' " running back Ronnie Brown said.

So up next is Denver, and Rivers actually said the Chargers have to make sure to guard against "overconfidence."

That's the Chargers. The new Chargers, who live on the edge for a month and learn to love the pressure, who peel off five in a row and then complain the weather wasn't nearly as rough as promised.

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