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 San Diego finally came up clutch.
Ross had excellent coordinators. Bill Arnsparger on defense had a past that was marked by coordinating the same unit for the 1972 Miami Dolphins team that went undefeated, and as a head coach he had taken LSU to a pair of Sugar Bowl appearances in three years. The offensive coordinator was Ralph Friedgen, a creative mind, who had a bright future ahead of him where he would revive the Maryland Terrapins program and take them to the Orange Bowl in 2001.
San Diego started the season 6-0, and after a brief hiccup in the middle where they lost three of five, the Chargers closed the season with a pair of wins to get to 11-5. The last game of the regular season was a 37-34 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. It didn’t affect playoff seeding—Pittsburgh was still the favorite—but it got the Chargers the 2-seed and first-round bye, and proved to be a foreshadowing of what would go down in January.
Even with San Diego sitting on the 2-seed, they were still overlooked when the playoffs began. The AFC side was focused on the favored Steelers, Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins and the swan song for Joe Montana with the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Dolphins were the survivor of a Marino-Montana game in the first round and it was Miami who came west for the divisional round. When Marino led the Dolphins to a 21-6 lead, it looked like another playoff disappointment for the Bolts.
Then quarterback Stan Humphries led a second half rally that concluded with a short touchdown pass with 35 seconds to play, putting San Diego up 22-21. Marino led the Dolphins back down the field, but kicker Pete Stoyanovich missed a 48-yard field goal and the Chargers were moving on.
The AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh was a taut affair. The Steelers led 13-3 in the second half, but Humphries threw two long touchdown passes and gave Seau’s defense as four-point lead. Pittsburgh quarterback Neil O’Donnell led his team down the field.
Once again, San Diego was just holding on. It was fourth-and-goal on the 3-yard line in the closing moments. O’Donnell threw the ball into the end zone. It was batted away.
San Diego had survived two consecutive last-possession attacks from two franchises with much more of a winning history. The Super Bowl was a mismatch—the San Francisco 49ers of Steve Young were simply too good and they overwhelmed the Chargers 49-26 in a result that surprised no one. What was more important for San Diego fans is that their team had finally made it to the Super Bowl.