SAN DIEGO (AP) — A month ago, no one could have imagined the San Diego Chargers would be practicing on New Year's week.
The Bolts were manhandled by the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 1, losing 17-10 to fall to 5-7.
The playoffs were a far-off dream.
But the Chargers haven’t lost since then, winning four straight under rookie coach Mike McCoy
"Obviously it's going to be a tough challenge going into their place and trying to get a win, but we can't be more ecstatic with the opportunity we have as a football team," Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle said. "We surely missed this chance over the last three years. I know I have, so we can't wait to get on the road and go play a playoff game."
The Chargers haven't been in the playoffs since 2009, when they were 13-3 and earned the AFC's No. 2 seed before being embarrassed at home in a 17-14 loss to the New York Jets in the divisional round. Norv Turner was in his third year as San Diego's coach and LaDainian Tomlinson was in his ninth and final season with the Chargers.
Only six players remain from that team: Weddle, quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, punter Mike Scifres, center Nick Hardwick and right guard Jeromey Clary.
San Diego hasn't won a playoff game since 2008, when it won its final four games and took advantage of a collapse by Denver to win the AFC West at 8-8. San Diego beat Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in overtime in a home wild-card game before losing at Pittsburgh.
"At some positions we were better talent-wise and some on this team are better. I think this is more of a team,” Weddle said. “We rely more on each other in all three phases than we did in those playoff years and I think ultimately that could take us farther."
Playing a series of win-or-else games has helped prepare the Bolts for the playoffs, Rivers said.
"This is a new territory for the bulk of our team, for this team," Rivers said.
"We’ve been in the playoff-type deal for four weeks because you lose another one, you're done. I don't think our mindset has to change or shift gears. We didn't get to relax in the month of December because we had some things wrapped up.
"It's been playoff football for a month."
Gates said the Chargers are playing with confidence, but the veterans still have advice for the playoff newcomers.
"We understand that it's very hard to get to this point," the star tight end said.
"It's very hard to be playing a playoff game. You've just kind of embrace that situation. That's kind of the message we're sending is that there's no tomorrow. You've got to go out and play every play like literally it's your last play because it might be. You never know what play might change the game."
Rookie linebacker Manti Te'o agrees, saying he wants to "take advantage of it because you don't know when your next opportunity will come."
Te'o, the former Notre Dame star, said he learned to keep things in perspective after the Fighting Irish were routed by Alabama in the BCS national championship game last season.
"It's easy to come into this game and get too anxious to the point where you freeze," Te'o said.
"What you want to do is accept it for what it is. It's a playoff game. The winner moves on and the loser goes home.
At the end of the day you've got to line up, know your keys, know your reads, study the offense and play ball. That's exactly what I'm going to do."