The San Diego Chargers scored 10 points and allowed zero in the fourth quarter to finish off the Dallas Cowboys 30-21 on Sunday. The Chargers moved to 2-2 with a Week 5 road game against the 1-3 Oakland Raiders.
Until Sunday's performance, the Chargers were 6-12 since 2011 in games decided by nine points or fewer. Three of the wins came in early 2011, two of them against the 3-13 Raiders last season and one of them was their 33-30 win in Week 2 over the Philadelphia Eagles, winning on a late field goal after squandering a 10-point lead.
For the first time in three seasons, the Chargers finished off a quality opponent. San Diego kicked Dallas when the Cowboys were down and put them away when they had the opportunity. The Chargers demonstrated a killer instinct that good teams in the NFL must have to be successful.
The Chargers didn't squat on their 23-21 lead in the fourth quarter. Instead, they made the big clutch plays needed to win the game. Right after the Chargers got the lead, San Diego's defense forced the Cowboys to punt, giving the offense an opportunity to add to the advantage.
It's no secret the Chargers have issues on the offensive line and in the secondary, but the good teams are able to make plays in close games. The good defenses are able to get timely stops and play better with their backs against the wall. Good offenses are able to break their opponents' backs with a timely score.
Aided by a Cowboys holding penalty, the Chargers forced a punt with about 10 minutes to go in the game after Tony Romo threw incomplete on 3rd-and-8. The Chargers got the ball back, and the offense took advantage of a golden opportunity to go up by two scores and put the pressure on Romo and the Dallas offense.
Quarterback Philip Rivers, who is in the midst of a bounce-back year, hit Vincent Brown for two yards to convert a 3rd-and-1 and then connected with Antonio Gates for a 56-yard touchdown to put the Chargers up by nine points. The big pass play to Gates wasn't possible if the Chargers don't get that first down the play before, and it's these types of conversions that the Chargers had so struggled to make in similar situations over the past few years.
Going up by two scores at that stage of the game pretty much takes away the opposing offense's running threat and makes life easier for the defense. Playing with such a lead allows the pass-rushers to pin their ears back, while the secondary can allow short throws underneath, since the Cowboys would have to score twice within about seven minutes.
The offense took a lot of pressure off the defense by going up by nine points. But it still looked like a familiar story was about to unfold. The Cowboys marched down the field, chewing up four minutes of clock and getting down to the Chargers' 7-yard line with the help of a pass-interference call on linebacker Donald Butler.
The Cowboys converted two third downs on the drive, including a Romo scramble for 15 yards on 3rd-and-8 and a Romo pass to Jason Witten on 3rd-and-9. The drive started on the Cowboys' 21-yard line, and they still had all three timeouts.
It was looking like vintage Chargers.
Apparently, the defense didn't want to be upstaged by the offense. Cornerback Crezdon Butler, last week victimized on the Titans' game-winning touchdown pass, forced a fumble as Terrance Williams tried to get in for a touchdown.
Butler's play was the kind of big play the defense had been unable to make on third down or in the red zone late in games.
After the Williams fumble, Ryan Mathews cemented San Diego's victory with a few tough runs that forced the Cowboys to burn all three timeouts. That's how close games are won in the NFL, and the Chargers finally figured that out against the Cowboys.
San Diego's defense forced a punt after they got the lead at the beginning fourth quarter. The offense capitalized with a touchdown, and the defense made the play that put the game away.
That's a winning recipe, even if the defense and offensive line still struggled.
The Chargers learned how to finish; they learned how to have a killer instinct late in the game and can now hope that the monster that has been haunting them has been locked securely in the closet. It's always about wins and losses in the NFL, but sometimes how games are won and lost is just as important.
If the Chargers have a good season in 2013, the game against the Cowboys might end up being a turning point. With three very winnable games before their Week 8 bye, the Chargers should at the very least be able to build on this performance.