Five observations on Chargers’ big win

The San Diego Chargers baffled Peyton Manning all night Sunday in beating the host Indianapolis Colts, 36-14. The Chargers intercepted Manning four times, returning two for touchdowns.

Though Philip Rivers threw for only 185 yards, he was 19 for 23 in an efficient outing. Running back Mike Tolbert picked up some of the slack, rushing for 103 yards and scoring San Diego’s lone offensive touchdown.

With its fourth straight win, San Diego moves to 6-5 – one game back of the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs. The Colts (6-5) dropped their second in a row, remaining in a tie for the AFC South lead with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Here are five observations from the game:

1. Manning can’t save the Colts single-handedly. The injuries to running backs Joseph Addai and Mike Hart, wide receiver Austin Collie, and tight end Dallas Clark are exposing the Colts’ lack of depth. Manning could make up for youthful backups against lesser opponents, but against the elite teams he needs more playmakers. This problem is exacerbated when the team falls behind as it did Sunday, because the decline in talent means teams can be more aggressive in attacking the Colts than in years past. Blitzing Manning becomes a whole lot easier when you know he has to throw and his pass catchers (except for Reggie Wayne) are ordinary. Indianapolis fans should start to worry a bit about their team’s playoff chances.

2. The Chargers defense is finding its form. Yes, Manning is missing his skill players but forcing four interceptions from a stud quarterback is phenomenal. Also, it appeared on almost every pass play that Manning faced an intense pass rush. There were two telling figures that cannot go unsaid: Indianapolis went 3 for 12 on third-down conversions and had just 24 rushing yards on 13 carries. And before anybody says the game was a rout, Indianapolis was down only 16-14 at halftime.

3. The Chargers can win without a huge game from Rivers. Rivers was efficient but he didn’t have a touchdown pass. In his previous three games, he threw 10 touchdown passes. If the Chargers play turnover-free ball as they did Sunday, watch out. They can dominate the clock just as well as any team in the league. They had the ball for more than 35 minutes against the Colts thanks to the strong running of Tolbert, who wore down Indianapolis’ undersized front seven with his 26 carries tom compliment Rivers’ controlled passing attack.

4. Indianapolis’ defense needs to make plays. The Chargers had only 301 yards of total offense and went 0 for 8 on third-down conversions, but with the Colts offense hurting, the defense – namely ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis – must step it up. Indianapolis is missing its tremendous safety Bob Sanders, but he has missed so much time the past few seasons that the team should know how to compensate for his absence. The Colts’ special teams needs to raise its game too. It did little Sunday, averaging a terrible 16.7 yards on nine kickoff returns. Giving the offense a short field (either by causing turnovers or with great punt/kickoff returns) will be paramount for the Colts the rest of the season.

5. The Chargers must tighten up its red-zone offense. Five trips inside the Colts’ 20 yielded four field goals and only one touchdown. If San Diego wants to continue its second-half resurgence, it cannot waste opportunities like it did Sunday. That said, going on the road and soundly beating the defending AFC champions should give the Chargers a huge boost for the stretch run.