Not even a game-long barrage of snowballs, an injured Stan Humphries or a 14-point second-half deficit could keep the San Diego Chargers from returning to the playoffs.
Shaun Gayle returned an interception 99 yards for a touchdown for the go-ahead score with 5:44 to play and the Chargers completed a late-season run to the playoffs by defeating the New York Giants 27-17 Saturday in a game that almost resulted in the first forfeit in NFL history.
The victory was the fifth straight for the Chargers (9-7) and it guaranteed last season’s Super Bowl losers a wildcard playoff berth that many thought improbable after the team slipped to 4-7 more than a month ago.
The Chargers will have to wait until Sunday to find out whether they are home or away.
“We did it the hard way,” Chargers coach Bobby Ross said after his team made the playoffs for the third time in four years and avoided becoming the 15th team to go to the Super Bowl one season and miss the playoffs the next.
“We lost Stan Humphries early and at one point, we didn’t have enough defensive linemen to put out there,” Ross said. “But our character prevailed. We hung in there and a won a very hard-fought football game.”
And they won it under bizarre circumstances as fans in the crowd of 50,243 spent much of the game throwing snowballs at both benches and anyone who moved on the sidelines.
Stadium security arrested 14 people, ejected 175 others and treated 15 others for injuries. Ten security guards were injured, three requiring hospitalization.
Chargers equipment manager Sid Brooks was knocked out for 30 seconds after being hit in the face with a snowball.
Referee Ron Blum halted the contest briefly early in the fourth quarter and had stadium announcer Bob Sheppard inform the fans that New York would forfeit the game unless the snowballs stopped.
The fans never listened and Ross argued several times with league officials after his players were hit.
“That’s the way it is in society today, there’s no respect for human life,” Giants coach Dan Reeves said. “I would not have cared if they called it.”
In the end, the Chargers won the game themselves, by doing what so many other teams have done against the Giants (5-11) this year - making the big plays when they counted.
“We found ourselves down 14 points and we needed a wakeup call,” said Charger linebacker Junior Seau, who recovered a fumble and set up Gayle’s touchdown with a hit on Giants quarterback Dave Brown. “We knew the last half of this game was the last half of our season unless we did something.”
Gayle made the biggest play, picking off a Brown pass at the 1 after Seau got to Brown on a blitz. He took off up the Charger sidelines and was only touched by snowballs along the way.
“It was the longest 99 yards in the history of football,” Gayle said. “We have equipment on so I didn’t worry much about getting hit.”
John Carney clinched the game with a 45-yard field goal with 3:37 to play, a score set up by a Brown fumble.
The Chargers, who lost Humphries to a neck injury on their second offensive series, fell behind 17-3 at the half as Brown and Rodney Hampton scored on short runs and New York limited San Diego to 64 total yards.
The break that got the Chargers back into the game came early in the second half when Mike Sherrard fumbled after catching a pass at the New York 38 and Seau recovered. Seven plays later, rookie Aaron Hayden scored on an 8-yard run to get San Diego within 17-10.
San Diego tied the game with 9:09 left in the game when Gale Gilbert drove them 55 yards in 12 plays with Rodney Culver scoring on an 8-yard run on a fourth-and-two.
New York appeared ready to take the lead when Hampton had runs of 11, 9 and 10 yards to move the Giants to the San Diego 12. But on second and 12, Seau got to Brown, causing the interception by Gayle that gave the Chargers the lead for good.
“We played a really good first half and the only way you can lose a game like this is to give the other team a lot of help,” Reeves said. “Santa Claus came early for them in the second half.”
The game may have been Reeves’ last as Giants’ coach. He has two years left on his contract, but he has had disagreements with management and there has been speculation he might not be back next season.
“It’s sad the year we had,” said Reeves, who had predicted New York would challenge Dallas for the NFC East title. “We came in with expectations and didn’t achieve many of the things we had hoped to. I expect to be back and I want to keep as many of this group together so they can reap the rewards.”
Chargers 27, Giants 17
San Diego 0 3 7 17 - 27
N.Y. Giants 3 14 0 0 - 17
NYG FG Daluiso 30, 11:03.
NYGBrown 3 run (Daluiso kick), 3:31.
SD-FG Carney 30, 7:56.
NY-Hampton 1 run (Daluiso kick), 14:46.
SD-Hayden 8 run (Carney kick), 5:09.
SD-Culver 8 run (Carney kick), 5:56.
SD-Gayle 99 interception return (Carney kick), 9:16.
SD-FG Carney 45, 11:23.
SD NY First downs 13 21 Rushes-yards 30-97 34-98 Passing 108 202 Punt Returns 2-9 4-23 Kickoff Returns 4-44 6-138 Interceptions Ret. 1-99 0-0 Comp-Att-Int 14-24-0 21-36-1 Sacked-Yards Lost 1-1 1-7 Punts 6-39 3-42 Fumbles-Lost 2-1 4-3 Penalties-Yards 6-35 2-15 Time of Possession 28:00 32:00
RUSHINGSan Diego, Hayden 22-80, Culver 2-10, Fletcher 3-5, Gilbert 2-1, Harmon 1-1. New York, Hampton 20-60, Wheatley 8-17, D.Brown 4-13, Elias 1-8, Way 1-0.
PASSINGSan Diego, Gilbert 12-21-0-97, Humphries 2-3-0-12. New York, D.Brown 21-36-1-209.
RECEIVINGSan Diego, Martin 4-37, Pupunu 4-15, Jefferson 2-17, Young 1-22, Coleman 1-11, Harmon 1-4, Mitchell 1-3. New York, Elias 4-46, Hampton 4-17, Pierce 3-38, Calloway 3-25, Way 2-45, Sherrard 2-14, Cross 2-10, Marshall 1-14.
MISSED FIELD GOALSNew York, Daluiso 42.
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