The Chargers had every reason not to concern themselves about winning in Week 17. The team had already secured its number two seed, Philip Rivers was to see limited time on the field, and they were playing a Redskins team that had been playing good teams tough across the entire second half.
Instead, the team won its 11th straight game to ride a 13-3 record into the playoffs.
The game was won on the arm of Billy Volek and his two yard touchdown pass to Mike Tolbert. Volek himself was a bit of an unsung playoff hero in 2007, playing in place of an injured Phillip Rivers to lead San Diego to a winning drive over the, currently first seeded, Indianapolis Colts.
With this win, the Chargers can claim to be the only AFC Division winner to enter the playoffs coming off of a win. This momentum advantage cannot be discounted.
The Cincinnati Bengals seem to be playing their worst football of late, having lost three of their last four games. The last time Cincinnati defeated a team with a winning record was all the way back in Week 10, against a skidding Steelers squad. They will be facing the same New York Jets team in the first round that just trounced the Bengals 37-0 in Week 17.
The Patriots had been riding a three game winning streak going into the final week of the regular season, giving them little to play for. They allowed a tight Houston win that would not have been as concerning as the Bengals' loss, were it not for Wes Welker’s leg self destructing.
If the early season is any indicator (when Welker was last out of the line-up), this means the Patriots offense will be an entirely different beast, something they can’t afford with a suspect defense.
Indianapolis suffered the least in its own loss.
It was considered a foregone conclusion, as the Colts shut themselves down to preserve key players for the playoffs. The pair of losses did not come to Peyton Manning’s Colts, but a team content to gut its line-up for four of the last five quarters it played.
Nevertheless, the two losses and apparent indifference to an opportunity for 16-0 puts a bad taste in the mouths of Indianapolis Colts players and fans. Their mystique has now been…interrupted.
All of this helps shift those all-important intangibles San Diego’s way. They have quietly amassed the longest active winning streak (by a large margin), will be their healthiest since the regular season opener, and have the confidence that they can defeat any team they will be looking at in the playoffs.
Ultimately, it was of little consequence what happened against Washington, the team would still be going into the playoffs hot and seeded second.
The changes lie in how the Chargers stand up against the other divisional champions, and even against potential upstart wildcards (with the Welker injury and Cincinnati skid, both games in round one could go to the away teams).
On the field they are the same team. Off it, they helped continue to be the dominant team of the second half. Never before has a win that meant next to nothing meant so much to a team.