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He's back in style

San Diego gets a positive charge from Flutie

You know those leather pants harboring dust in your closet -- too flashy, too antiquated to suit your current needs, but all the rave back in the day? Just slipping (or squeezing) those on again will change anyone's outlook. Swingin' Marty Schottenheimer can dig. He realized that nothing accentuates San Diego's bell-bottom offense like a vintage Doug Flutie.

There had been little stylish about the Chargers' season, starting with five straight losses that stretched their losing streak to nine. The breakthrough wasn't their Week 7 win over Cleveland, it was last weekend's defeat in Chicago. Schottenheimer relieved his sputtering quarterback of the future, Drew Brees, with a 41-year-old throwback, and voila, a 74-yard touchdown drive and instant respect.

Yesterday at Qualcomm Stadium, the Minnesota Vikings didn't run into the Chargers; it was more like San Diego ran over them. Flutie directed an offense that had been averaging 16.5 points per game to its biggest output in 153 contests -- a 42-28 thumping of one of the league's top squads. Of San Diego's season-high 458 yards, 248 came on the precision passing of Flutie (21 of 29). The team piled up six touchdowns, two by Flutie's arm, two by his legs. They were his first of either kind since 2001.

"I believe in magic, Flutie magic," said LaDainian Tomlinson, the biggest benefactor of the QB switch. "He played awesome. Doug Flutie, he's just amazing. He's unbelievable."

So was Tomlinson, who gutted the Vikings with 162 yards on only 16 carries. Perhaps the only one capable of catching Tomlinson on his 73-yard touchdown romp in the first quarter was Flutie, who proved as shifty as ever with scoring scampers of 3 and 13 yards, the latter coming off a fumbled snap.

"It was one of those days where things went right," Flutie said. "Guys just made plays. We didn't have the mistakes.

"I feel as good as I did when I was 30, that's for sure. It was fun. I had a blast."

So now what? When you're 2-7, next season becomes more important than this one. Schottenheimer still plans to give the old dude his due, if not simply to enhance his own job security. Nothing has changed in San Diego's grand plan, however you can't deny the Chargers looked pretty good with the past present in the backfield.

Claws are out The only thing more surprising than the Panthers' domination of the Bucs this season is that Carolina not only plays a better game, it talks a better one, too. A mismatch in 2002 has grown into an grudge match in 2003, and the NFC South is the home of the league's newest, fiercest rivalry.

"I'll say it: I can't stand them," said Carolina defensive tackle Kris Jenkins following a 27-24 win, the team's second over the Bucs in less than two months. "When they pull on their red and we pull on our blue, it's like the Bloods and the Crips."

That must make Tampa Bay the Bloods, because it is in dire need of a transfusion after falling three games behind their division-leading rivals. Bucs offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker, who deemed his matchups with punishing pass rusher Julius Peppers "personal", personally helped drop Tampa Bay below .500 by committing three personal fouls.

"I pay him as little attention as I pay someone walking down the street," Peppers said. "They were the world champs last year and now they have five losses. Maybe now we won't have to hear all the talk, talk, talk that they do."

With Warren Sapp and Keyshawn Johnson around, you'd have to live in Cameroon, not Carolina.

Odd enough OTB is now taking wagers on who is more ashamed of the Giants' 27-7 home loss to the foundering Falcons. The team's fans are even money, but New York defensive end Michael Strahan is closing in. "I am embarrassed for us and embarrassed for the freakin' fans and for anybody sitting at home watching," Strahan said. "I am embarrassed for people who aren't even Giants fans who had to watch because they couldn't get anyone else on the TV. It was freakin' horrible." No kidding. There really are no excuses for allowing Warrick Dunn to run for 178 yards (10 more than he had amassed through Week 6) and Atlanta, with no passing game to speak of, to ground out 216 rushing yards after it had averaged 101 through a deplorable 1-7 start. The "Fire Fassel" chants could be heard all the way to Queens. "I can understand the fans being upset," said Giants coach Jim Fassel. "I knew that was what I was going to get when I came here if I didn't do well." . . . Confidence in Oakland has reached subterranean levels. Still waiting for league MVP Rich Gannon to recover from a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, the Raiders called 21 straight running plays to open their 27-24 overtime loss to the Jets -- and featured back Charlie Garner (strained back) never returned after the first series . . . A key Jaguars rookie is finally catching up to the learning curve, but it's not quarterback Byron Leftwich. He's already there. It's Jack Del Rio, who's still trying to make up for his ax-in-the-locker-room stunt that will live in coaching infamy. The first-year Jacksonville mentor must have gotten his hands on "NFL Coaching for Dummies" because Chapter 1 was on full display in a 28-23 stunner over Indianapolis -- your best player gets the ball the most. That would be running back Fred Taylor, who had season highs of 28 carries, 152 yards, and 2 TDs in the Jaguars' second win of the season. Colts coach Tony Dungy should have taken a refresher course. His star back, Edgerrin James, only had 15 totes for 44 yards. "Maybe I'm not good enough, but I don't make those decisions," said James, who unlike Del Rio, has a legitimate ax to grind.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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