The San Diego Chargers’ postseason history is not exactly filled with glorious moments. From the consecutive AFC Championship Game losses with Dan Fouts at quarterback in 1980-81, to the disappointments of the Marty Schottenheimer years in the ‘00s, to the flop of 2009 under Norv Turner, the Charger fans know about hopes being dashed. But the 1994 San Diego Chargers were just the opposite—it was the year the Bolts finally came up clutch.
Bobby Ross, fresh off winning a national championship at Georgia Tech two years earlier, took over in 1992 and promptly won the AFC West. After briefly stepping back to 8-8, the 1994 San Diego Chargers made the big breakthrough and finally reached the Super Bowl.
Ross’ offense was built around the powerful running of big Natrone Means. Even with an offensive line that was mostly non-descript, Means muscled his way for 1,350 yards. He also mixed in 39 receptions. He was augmented in the backfield by the versatile Ronnie Harmon, who caught 58 balls.
Stan Humphries isn’t a name that rings out in history with other Charger quarterbacks like Fouts or Philip Rivers. But Humphries had a strong overall year in 1994. His 58 percent completion rate, 7.1 yards-per attempt and 2.6 interception rate all ranked in the upper half among NFL starting quarterbacks. He had a balanced receiving corps. Tony Martin was the big-play guy, his 50 catches going for nearly 18 yards a pop. Mark Seay and Shawn Jefferson combined to catch 101 more passes. The Charger offense would rank fifth in the league for points scored.
The San Diego defense was anchored by elite play in the front seven. The defensive ends included Pro Bowler Leslie O’Neal and Chris Mims, who combined for 23 ½ sacks. And the late, great Junior Seau was the best middle linebacker in football. Overseen by coordinator Bill Arnsparger, who had been the DC for the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, San Diego’s defense ranked ninth in the NFL for points allowed.
San Diego opened the season on Sunday Night Football against John Elway’s Denver Broncos. It didn’t start well, as the Chargers found themselves in an early 17-0 hole. But Humphries was making big plays—his 12/22 night ended up producing 232 passing yards. San Diego chipped back to get within 24-19. Then defensive back Stanley Richards stepped up. With Denver on the verge of going in for a critical score in the third quarter, Richards intercepted Elway on the one-yard line and took it back 99 yards the other way. The Chargers won a 37-34 thriller.
Humphries played well again in the home opener against the lowly Cincinnati Bengals. He went 18/29 for 299 yards and no mistakes. Seay caught eight passes for 119 yards. Means ran for 107 yards. The result was a comfortable 27-10 win.
San Diego went north to visit the Seattle Seahawks in the old Kingdome. The Bolts weren’t sharp and committed 14 penalties. But Richard had another big Pick-6, this one coming back 73 yards. And San Diego had another 99-yard touchdown play—this one a Humphries-to-Martin TD pass. It was enough for a 24-10 win.
The Chargers went on to play the Raiders, who then called Los Angeles home. Special teams keyed a strong start, as Darrien Gordon took a punt 90 yards to the house. San Diego led 17-0. But the Chargers bogged down. The Raiders cut the lead to 23-17. Then Humphries threw a Pick-6. Disaster loomed, as they trailed by a point. But Humphries bounced back, led a drive into a field goal range and kicker John Carney won it with a 33-yard boot. San Diego went into their bye week riding high at 4-0.
A home date with the Kansas City Chiefs awaited on the far side of the bye. The Chiefs were the defending division champs, and they had the legendary Joe Montana at quarterback. But San Diego would control the line of scrimmage. Means went for 125 yards. The K.C. running game, led by Marcus Allen, was held to 64 yards. The Chargers churned out a 20-6 win and stayed undefeated.
The good times kept rolling at home against mediocre New Orleans. Means ran for early touchdowns from 16 & 8 yards out. San Diego raced to a 24-0 lead and closed out a 36-22 win. They were 6-0, the toast of the AFC, and emerging as a potential rival to the powerful NFC duo of the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys, widely seen as the league’s two best teams.
Denver was having a mediocre season in 1994, but it was their visit to SoCal that broke the momentum. San Diego missed a chance to put the game away early when three deep drives ended in field goals. What could have been a rout was only 9-0. When Humphries threw three interceptions, it turned into a 20-15 loss.
Seattle, an AFC West team prior to the realignment of 2002, made their return visit a week later. Means ran for 104 yards and keyed an easy 35-15 win over a bad team. But Humphries was knocked out and missed the following week’s game in Atlanta. Even though backup Gale Gilbert didn’t play badly, the Chargers failed to execute on third down, going just 3-for-15. The result was a 10-9 loss.
At 7-2, San Diego’s visit to Kansas City was looming even bigger now, as the Chargers needed to keep control of the division. Humphries was back in the saddle. After spotting the Chiefs a 13-0 lead, the San Diego defense took over and shut down the K.C. running game again. Humphries hit Jefferson with a 52-yard touchdown strike, then tossed a short TD pass to tight end Duane Young in the fourth quarter. The Bolts got out of town with a big 14-13 win. They were two games up on the Chiefs and had the tiebreaker.
New England’s 4-6 record made them seem like easy prey. But this was a cross-country trip for a third straight road game. That alone would have given reason for San Diego fans to worry. What’s more, we now know that this Patriot team, with Drew Bledsoe and Bill Parcells, was just starting a surge that would carry them to the playoffs. The Chargers fell behind 10-0, couldn’t really get into their running game, and Humphries was intercepted three times. A 23-17 loss was the result.
Returning home to play a bad Los Angeles Rams team was the right antidote. Gordon had another big punt return for a touchdown. The defense intercepted four passes. The last one was a 50-yard Pick-6 from Sean Vanhorse that was the coup de grace in a 31-17 win.
San Diego was 9-3, two games up on Kansas City and plus-three on the L.A. Raiders in the AFC West. With four games left, the Chargers were comfortable. It was the race for homefield advantage and what were then two first-round byes that were the focus. The Pittsburgh Steelers were also 9-3 and were coming to San Diego for the season finale. The Miami Dolphins were 8-4, with the tiebreaker situation against the Bolts still up in the air.
A Monday Night home game with the Raiders, following a Kansas City loss on Sunday, was a chance to ice the division title. It was a missed chance. Neither team ran the ball well. But the Charger secondary gave up some big plays and they lost a back-and-forth 24-17 affair. What’s worse is that the next game was with San Francisco. The powerful 49ers quickly raced to a 21-0 lead. In a deep hole, San Diego couldn’t pound the ball with Means. Martin did catch nine balls for 172 yards, but the stats were padded after the result was a foregone conclusion. The final was 38-15.
The good news for the Chargers, now 9-5, is that the Chiefs were also flailing and were at 7-7. The Raiders were up to 8-6, but San Diego still had the divisional record tiebreaker on L.A. Moreover, Miami had missed a chance to really take a hold of the 2-seed and was also 9-5. While Pittsburgh was pulling away with the homefield advantage, a first-round bye was still very much on the table.
San Diego just needed to start playing well, and they flew east to play a bad New York Jets team. Things didn’t turn around immediately, and the Chargers trailed 6-0 in the second quarter. A short TD pass from Humphries to Seay got everything loosened up. Humphries went on to throw touchdown strikes to Martin from 44 and 60 yards out, go 19/26 for 280 yards on the day, and lead a 21-6 win. San Diego was AFC West champs.
What’s more, Miami lost, so the Chargers controlled their destiny for the second first-round bye. Pittsburgh had sewn up the top seed, so the Steelers had nothing to play for when they came west. It was still a wild game. At 3-3, San Diego’s Andre Coleman returned a punt 90 yards to the house. The Chargers led 24-19 after three quarters. A wild fourth-quarter ensued. Trailing 34-27, Means ran 20 yards to tie the game. And San Diego got the last word when a Carney field goal won it 37-34. The Chargers were 11-5 and the 2-seed in the AFC playoffs.
Miami knocked out Kansas City in the wild-card round, and the Dolphins came west for what would be the final game of Divisional Round Weekend on Sunday afternoon.
The Dolphins struck first with a Dan Marino touchdown pass. A long Charger drive in the second quarter stopped just near the goal line and ended with a short Carney field goal. Before halftime, the pattern repeated. Marino tossed a TD pass. The Chargers drove right to the brink, and then settled for three. When Marino came out in the third quarter and tossed another TD pass, the score was 21-6 and the afternoon was looking bleak in old Jack Murphy Stadium.
These two franchises had played an epic playoff game back in 1981. And while it might be pushing it to put the 1994 edition on a par with the ’81 classic, this one was about to get considerably more dramatic.
The San Diego defense produced a safety. They were also completely shutting down the Miami running game, holding the Dolphins to 26 yards on the ground and preventing them from salting this one way. Means, who would rush for 139 yards, cut the lead to 21-15 with a 24-yard jaunt later in the third quarter.
In the final quarter, Humphries led a late drive. He had thrown two interceptions and was generally outplayed by Marino, but Stan came through here. He tossed an eight-yard scoring pass to Seay in the final minute, capping off a 28/43 for 276 yards afternoon. Marino had an answer—he drove the Dolphins into position for a field goal try on the last play. But it sailed wide. San Diego had survived and was going to their first AFC Championship Game since that 1981 season.
No one gave the Chargers much of a chance. Pittsburgh was rolling and had just demolished Bill Belichick’s Cleveland Browns in the divisional round. On a gray, early afternoon in the Steel City, the Steelers came out rolling and scored first to take a 7-0 lead. Continuing the pattern from the previous week, San Diego drove inside the 5-yard line…and settled for three.
A grinding game ensued. Steeler quarterback Neil O’Donnell was putting up yards, but the Chargers were again controlling an opponent’s ground game. A couple of good Pittsburgh drives ended in field goals. In the third quarter, a game that felt like it was being controlled by the Steelers was still in striking distance at 13-3.
Humphries then found tight end Alfred Pupunu on a 43-yard touchdown pass. You could start to feel the tension build in old Three Rivers Stadium. And for good reason. Humphries would strike again from 43 yards out, this time to Martin in the fourth quarter. San Diego suddenly had a 17-13 lead.
In a replay of the previous week, the opponent had one more good swing left in them on the final possession and Pittsburgh drove to the Charger three-yard line in the closing seconds. It came down to 4th-and-goal. O’Donnell threw to the end zone. Seau knocked it down. A season that had seen a surging start and mediocre finish had now been capped by two thrilling AFC playoff wins and a long-awaited Super Bowl trip.
Of course, the season wasn’t really “capped.” There was still the Super Bowl itself, to be played out in Miami where San Francisco was waiting. The conventional wisdom around the league was that the 49ers’ win over the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game had been the de facto Super Bowl. San Diego was installed as a huge 19-point underdog.
This was one of those times when conventional wisdom was spot-on. The 49ers and Cowboys were both light-years ahead of the rest of the league and the Super Bowl went much like the December meeting between San Francisco and San Diego. The Chargers fell behind by multiple scores early and the 49-26 final was never close.
But San Diego was still the best team in the AFC. And after such a long wait to get here, no one was complaining.