LaDainian Tomlinson and the Chargers finally took control of a sloppy season opener, with the reigning NFL MVP throwing for one touchdown and rushing for another in a 14-3 win over the defending NFC champion Bears.
With expectations high for both teams, it was far from the marquee matchup that hyped-up fans expected. And if it was a Super Bowl preview, well, imagine how bad the ratings would be.
"I told the guys that they were going to make a mistake somewhere and when they did it was our job to capitalize on it," Tomlinson said.
The Bears, who topped the NFC last year at 13-3 before losing in the Super Bowl to Indianapolis, were nothing short of brutal with four turnovers and their fewest points since a 22-3 loss at Jacksonville on Dec. 12, 2004, during Lovie Smith's first season as head coach. Two of the turnovers set up the game's only touchdowns.
"When we're playing at our best, those mistakes don't happen and tonight definitely wasn't our night," said Grossman, who was a pedestrian 12-for-23 for 145 yards and an interception. "We had all the opportunities in the world. Our defense gave us a chance to win this game."
The Chargers, an NFL-best 14-2 in 2006 before their playoff pratfall against New England, had two turnovers and allowed three sacks.
Still, Norv Turner came away a winner in his debut as Chargers head coach, raising his overall head coaching record with three teams to 59-82-1.
"This was a championship-type game," San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said. "This was a game we didn't win last year. L.T.'s not going to rush for 170 yards every game. It's about winning."
Tomlinson threw a 17-yard TD pass to All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates with 45 seconds left in the third quarter, then scored on a 7-yard run with 9:09 left to play.
While Tomlinson tore through Chicago's defense in a shoe commercial that's been airing recently, he didn't fare nearly as well against the real Bears. He was held to 25 yards on 17 carries, the second-lowest total of his seven-year career. His longest gain of the day was 10 yards on the final play of the first half, when the Chargers ran out the clock and went into the locker room trailing 3-0.
Tomlinson did catch seven passes for 51 yards, but the guy who saved the Chargers was Gates, who had 107 yards on nine catches.
The Bears got away with a big one in the third quarter, when the Chargers were poised to punch it in from the 1. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris appeared to be offside as he anticipated the snap and plowed into Rivers, forcing him to fumble. Mike Brown recovered and, despite the Chargers' protests, the Bears kept the ball. They ended up punting, though.
"The line judge and head linesman just didn't rule on the play as the defender being offsides," referee Pete Morelli said. "That is it, basically."
San Diego got an even bigger break as it was forced to punt. Mike Scifres' kick was high but well in front of Devin Hester, and the ball bounced off the shoulder of Chicago's Brandon McGowan while he was blocking Michael Turner. San Diego's Matt Wilhelm recovered.
Four plays later, Tomlinson took a toss from Rivers, rolled right and hit Gates in the front right corner of the end zone for a 7-3 lead. It was Tomlinson's seventh career TD pass.
"When I got this job, he said to me, 'You know, I throw the ball,' " said Turner, who replaced the fired Marty Schottenheimer in February.
"I don't want to get into a situation where I throw every game," Tomlinson said. "I don't want to get to a point where I'm throwing so much that I'm getting incompletions. I'd rather keep my percentage up."
Tomlinson is 8-for-11 for 143 yards passing in his career.
"There's really no way that you can shut him down," Gates said of Tomlinson. "He finds ways to make other guys play better. Even though we didn't have much success running the ball, he still helped us make plays and helped us win the ballgame.
"I told him I thought it was an impressive pass, by the way," Gates said.
Tomlinson, held to 12 yards on 14 carries to that point, had consecutive carries of 6 and 7 yards to finish off the ensuing Chargers' drive.
"We had four turnovers? Wow," said Harris. "That's a lot. You don't win with four turnovers. I don't know if they played better than us, they just made less mistakes. And that's enough to win the game.
"You have to give them credit because they won, but we don't feel we have to take a back seat to anyone."
Rivers threw to Gates into double coverage and was intercepted by Brown, setting up Robbie Gould's 27-yard field goal.
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