This time, rain doesn't dampen Chargers' hopes

January 06, 1995|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- It's raining in San Diego again, but this time, the Chargers claim, they are ready for the deluge.

Two years ago this week, San Diego was basking in the glow of its first AFC playoff appearance in a decade. The Chargers ran their win streak to eight games with a victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, but then Mother Nature tossed a less desirable wild card their way.

One of the worst winter storms in San Diego history wreaked havoc on the practice plan of then-rookie head coach Bobby Ross and the mostly new team general manager Bobby Beathard had assembled. Practices were abbreviated or moved entirely from flooded Jack Murphy Stadium. The Chargers were pelted by more rain in Miami, where they were inundated by the Dolphins, 31-0, in the divisional playoffs.

"We were more worried about the weather and the practice conditions than we were the Dolphins," said Sean Vanhorse, a Chargers nickel back from Baltimore. "For all the practice we did in the rain, it didn't help us any when we had to play in it.

"I've had a lot of flashbacks to then the last few days, with all the rain we had [an inch alone on Wednesday, with wind gusts of 50 mph], but I'm not worried. This time, we're a lot better prepared. There's so much more in our favor."

To start with, the Chargers-Dolphins divisional playoff game Sunday at 4 will be at Jack Murphy Stadium, where Miami last won in 1978. This time around, it was San Diego that had a bye week to rest and heal, as Miami pulled away from Kansas City in a first-round game.

What else is different for the Chargers?

On the field, Natrone Means has grown into a Pro Bowl running back in his second year, and Beathard signed four free agents to strengthen a defense that was last in the league in pass defense in 1993.

Underneath it, the Chargers had a new drainage system installed at Jack Murphy Stadium after the debacle of two years ago. Beathard and Ross are seeing to all the details as they try to direct San Diego to its first Super Bowl appearance.

Despite the playoff whipping Miami administered San Diego two years ago, the Chargers were viewed as an up-and-coming franchise. They stumbled to an 8-8 record last season, however, when one of the few bright spots was a 45-20 victory over Miami that knocked the Dolphins out of the playoffs.

Playing the spoiler in December is one thing. Getting into the AFC championship game for the first time since back-to-back losses to Oakland in 1981 and Cincinnati in 1982 is another.

The Chargers are aware of the challenge they face in slowing Dan Marino, even though he has had little success on the West Coast. In their playoff game two years ago, Marino threw for three second-quarter touchdowns, two to Keith Jackson, as the Dolphins pounced on a few Stan Humphries interceptions.

"Give him [Marino] time, the receivers get open, and he can hurt you, he can hurt you real bad," said Vanhorse, a fourth-year pro who went to Northwestern High and Howard University.

Marino may be a Hall of Famer to be, but most quarterbacks tore through the Chargers in December, and both teams are prepared for a shootout. Miami led the AFC in scoring, followed by San Diego.

Jeff Hostetler passed for 319 yards when the Los Angeles Raiders beat the Chargers, 24-17. Steve Young threw for 304 when the San Francisco 49ers blew them out, 38-15. Even two weeks ago, when the Chargers clinched a bye with a last-minute, 37-34 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Neil O'Donnell and Mike Tomczak combined for 321 yards.

That victory, following one against the New York Jets at Giants Stadium, was a marvelous tonic for the Chargers, who were the only team in the NFL to start 6-0.

When All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau was slowed by a pinched nerve and the Chargers lost five times in an eight-game stretch, however, the doubters were out in force. After all, this is a team that no major publication predicted would finish atop the AFC West.

"Right now we've got that confidence back to where we were at midseason," said Ross, who has a 30-14 record since the Chargers' 0-4 start of two years ago.

"We were young then, and it [the playoffs] was all new to us. The pressure was different this time. We were the front-runners, and to maintain that position all year long was a little difficult, particularly when everybody is waiting for you to fall on your face."

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