SAN DIEGO - It was crunch time in a playoff game and Marlon McCree saw the ball heading his way. In the time it takes to breathe, he had to react, and how he did so would perhaps determine the fate of his San Diego Chargers.
Last year against the New England Patriots?
Well, sure, but before we enter the time tunnel for that, stop only at last Sunday in the dramatic divisional triumph at Indianapolis. With his team protecting a slim lead (yes, it should sound familiar), McCree reacted to a future Hall of Famer's pass coming at him (Peyton Manning in this case; Tom Brady is in the other story, which we'll get to) and knew he'd have to tangle with one heck of a possession receiver (Reggie Wayne, so save the stuff about Troy Brown for a bit).
Manning's pass was brilliantly delivered and Wayne appeared poised for a reception that would produce a first down deep in San Diego territory with a minute to go. Tens of thousands of blue-clad Colts fans within the deafening RCA Dome sensed a dramatic touchdown that would deliver their team to the AFC Championship game, but with a resounding and frightening thud, McCree sucked all the air out of the big bubble.
He unleashed every bit of force he could muster from his 5-foot-11-inch, 202-pound frame and slammed into Wayne with such ferocity that the ball bounced to the floor and the Colts' most productive receiver crumbled alongside. As an emphatic hush fell over the crowd, the reality of the situation sank in, thanks to McCree's superb play. It was now fourth and 5 and Manning was without any timeouts or either of his prized wideouts, Marvin Harrison having left the game with a sore knee and Wayne having been shown the sideline courtesy of McCree's hit.
When on the following snap Manning delivered his third straight incompletion, McCree could celebrate along with his teammates. This time, he had performed with textbook precision with a playoff game hinging on his split-second thinking. That is in stark contrast to what happened a year earlier, which brings us to Brady, Brown, and the bitter disappointment of the divisional loss to New England.
He doesn't deny it's a memory he plays over and over in his mind.
"Oh, yeah. I still relive it. You can never get away from it," said McCree.
If you recall last January's playoff game at
It was McCree - seemingly capping a great first year in the Southern California sun after an NFL sojourn that had wound through Jacksonville, Houston, and Carolina - who stepped in front of Brady's pass for Brown with roughly 6 1/2 minutes to go. With the Chargers holding a 21-13 lead and McCree in possession at his 31, the curtain could have been lowered on New England's season. But as he bobbled the ball ever so slightly, McCree glanced to his left and saw more than enough daylight, so off he went.
And onward rushed the second-guessers. Why didn't he just knock the ball down, because it was a fourth-down pass and the Chargers could have taken over? Why didn't he just catch it and fall to the ground? Why did he run?
Brown didn't ask; he merely reacted by reaching in to punch the ball loose. Reche Caldwell recovered, giving New England new life. Five plays later, Brady's touchdown strike to Caldwell and a subsequent 2-point conversion by Kevin Faulk tied the game. On their next possession, the Patriots won, 24-21, on Stephen Gostkowski's field goal. More accurate is the perception so many onlookers had: The Chargers lost on McCree's blunder.
It's OK to go down that road. McCree has on countless occasions. So one year later, as he stood in the warm sunshine at Chargers Park, the team's practice facility, the veteran safety didn't deny he has a special reason to look forward to Sunday's game against the Patriots.
"I think this game will give me the opportunity to go out and make a statement," he said. "But you don't want to get too caught up in that, either. I think all I'm going to do is go out there and do my job and trust my teammates to do theirs."
In the days, weeks, and months following last year's mishap, McCree has often been asked to discuss the interception-turned-fumble. He told a local reporter that even his mother pressed him on the topic.
"Baby," she said over the phone one day, "why didn't you just get down?"
McCree could only shrug and tell her what he has told everyone. He steadfastly contends he would always make that interception and never knock it down and that he would even run with it, not sit. But if there is a regret, it is this: "The only thing I second-guessed was my decision on which way to run. Had I run to the right, the ball wouldn't have been exposed."
Of course, none of the time he has spent thinking about that play has changed the outcome. He had it, then he didn't. The Chargers were winning, then they lost. Time passed and another season rolled around, one in which McCree contributed three interceptions to help San Diego back into the playoffs. Only this time around, instead of one-and-out, the Chargers have won twice to provide them another shot at New England.
If the matchup rekindles memories of that bizarre interception and fumble sequence, it's not strictly because of McCree. To Brady, what sticks in his mind is the effort by Brown.
"That play [by Brown] was the best play I've ever seen," Brady said. "We talked all week about playing 60 minutes, every single play. A lot of people would be let down by something like that, but Troy's out there, he looks at the guy [McCree] and he's holding the ball in one arm, and Troy reaches in and rips it out."
McCree doesn't deny he felt like he had let the team down.
"It took a while [to get over it]," he said. "We were 14-2, the No. 1 seed, first-round bye, all that good stuff. Everybody was predicting us to win and go to the Super Bowl. It got cut off early and it's always disappointing when you lose, especially in a big game like that."
A year later, the landscape is different.
"We'll be lucky if we can hang with them. They're the best team in the world," said McCree.
Did he really mean that, the part about "being lucky" to hang with the Patriots? He nodded, and unlike the football in the closing moments of last year's game, he didn't drop the thought. To be sure, McCree said it again.
"Lucky if we can hang with them."
Jim McCabe can be reached at email@example.com.