By: Bob George/
January 13, 2008

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Flash back to October. Indians beat the Yankees in four games.

If you felt back then that getting the Yankees out of the way made the road to the World Series a lot easier for the Red Sox, you should be thinking much the same thing today. Sure enough, the Red Sox did indeed go on to win the World Series, albeit surviving a tough seven-game series with the Tribe, which led that series at one point, three games to one. Now today, with the San Diego Chargers coming through and bumping the Indianapolis Colts out of the playoffs, eliminating the one team with the best chance to ruin the perfect Patriot season, Patriot Nation could be breathing a huge sigh of relief.

Not that it will be a slamdunk. San Diego punched their ticket to Foxborough next weekend by holding on and upending the no-longer-world-champion Colts, 28-24 and gain entry into their first AFC Championship Game in 13 years. The Chargers won despite not having both quarterback Philip Rivers and running back LaDainian Tomlinson at game's end when the battle was being decided. The Chargers will now face the team that knocked them out last year, and that alone will give them plenty of resolve to give the Patriots their first loss of the season.

But by knocking out the Colts, the Chargers might have done to the Patriots what the Indians did to the Red Sox. The Yankees and the Red Sox are to MLB what the Colts and the Patriots are to the NFL, and the Colts are the ones who knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs last year. Despite the Patriots defeating the Colts on the road earlier this year, the game was really dominated by the Colts up until the last ten minutes and the Patriots still refuse to defend the Colt receivers like they did when they beat the Colts in the two consecutive playoff appearances in 2003 and 2004.

Now the Colts will no longer be a worry for Bill Belichick. Instead, his worry is now a team which came into Foxborough during Week 2 and got beaten badly on national television, 38-14. Whether or not the injured stars come back will be a concern for the Chargers, but not having to gameplan for Peyton Manning and his high octane offense will be somewhat of a comfort.

Can San Diego win? Of course they can. The playoff loss last January at San Diego is motivation enough, but it is compounded by that Week 2 embarrassment. Tomlinson in particular took great umbrage at the Patriots mocking Shawne Merriman's sack dance at the end of the game and wanted to fight Ellis Hobbs. Rivers, meanwhile, was beside himself all game long on Sunday at the numerous officials' calls which went against the Bolts, and should also have adverse memories of last year fresh in his mind.

Another element which San Diego enjoys right now is that they have Norv Turner as their head coach. Or rather, they don't have Marty Schottenheimer any more. No Charger fan should be complaining right now about having Turner as their head coach, as he is 2-0 as their boss in the playoffs as of right now. Turner looks like a much better playoff game manager than Schottenheimer; if he could get a backup quarterback to engineer a game-winning drive on the road, Turner deserves all the praise given him.

As for the Colts, it is hard to lay this at the feet of Manning, but it will give historians more fodder to condemn him rather than to praise him for last year. The AFC title game everyone thought would happen is by the board as Indianapolis never even made it to that game. For all the time Indianapolis spent under the radar thanks to the Patriots and their historic season, the Colts came into this game and cut another playoff stinker which has marked this franchise all during the Manning era.

You can say that the Colts missed Dwight Freeney. You can say that both running backs Joseph Addai and Kenton Keith were banged up during the game and spent long stretches on the bench. You can say that the Colt defense suffered because defensive standout Bob Sanders played hurt for much of the second half. You can say that Marvin Harrison was nowhere near up to game speed thanks to the fumble he suffered on his first catch of the game. When you dissect this game, you really cannot point to Manning as being the goat of the game.

Much of the postgame talk will surround head coach Tony Dungy, who is rumoured to be considering retirement. With two minutes to go in the game, facing a fourth and goal at the seven, Dungy elected to go for it instead of kicking a field goal which would have made it 28-27 and a chance to win it with a field goal later on with all three of their timeouts still intact. Manning rolled right and tried to hit Dallas Clark in the flat, but the pass was hurried and fell incomplete.

Manning did get the ball back later with one timeout and 1:30 to work with, but the Chargers held him to four-and-out, sealing the win.

The Colts saw two long-term events come to an end with the loss. Their one-year run as Super Bowl champs is over. Also, their 24-season run at the RCA Dome comes to an end (it would have anyway, win or lose), as they will move into gleaming new Lucas Oil Stadium next year. If Dungy does indeed call it a career, then make it three long-term events. Whatever the case, the loss was monumental for the Colt franchise, a loss they could never have envisioned and a loss which will make football purists who were hungering for a Patriots-Colts AFC title game nod their heads with some sorrow.

Patriot Nation, on the other hand, could very well be celebrating unless the Chargers can come up big once again and the Patriots stumble with history on the line. If the Patriots do go on and win the Super Bowl and complete their 19-0 odyssey, they could look at Sunday's Colts loss as being the last major obstacle. Again, this is exactly how the baseball playoffs unfolded, and it is likely how the football playoffs will conclude barring an unforeseen chain of events which turn against the Patriots.

So, the AFC Championship Game is set. Patriots and Chargers for the right to head for Glendale, Arizona and Super Bowl XLII. These two teams met in 1963 for the AFL Championship, and the Patriots got creamed in San Diego. That won't happen next weekend. The Chargers will put up a tough fight, and could very well pack a tough punch for the Patriots. The 1994 Bolts won on the road en route to Super Bowl XXIX, if you recall, but then again, Pittsburgh is a lousy home playoff team anyway.

But deep down inside, this was a lot like watching the Yankees going home with their tails between their legs. Many Patriot fans hate the Colts like they hate the Yankees, and fear the Colts like the Bombers.

Rest easy, Patriot Nation. The Colts are dead. A new champion will be crowned in three weeks.