Surging Chargers move on
SD caps turnaround by thrashing Denver
SAN DIEGO - The mild, mild AFC West belongs to LaDainian Tomlinson, Philip Rivers, and the rest of the San Diego Chargers.
The Chargers won the NFL's weakest division with an 8-8 record, becoming the first team to go from 4-8 to the playoffs by routing the Denver Broncos, 52-21, last night. San Diego became the first team to win a division at 8-8 since the Cleveland Browns in 1985.
Tomlinson, who didn't return after straining an abdominal muscle in the third quarter, had his first three-touchdown game of the season. Rivers threw his 33d and 34th touchdown passes, breaking Hall of Famer Dan Fouts's 1981 team record for a season.
"It was really a playoff game tonight, so we knew we had to win to keep going and that was all we needed," Tomlinson said.
Denver (also 8-8) completed a monumental collapse, becoming the first team since division play began in 1967 to miss the playoffs after having a three-game lead with three weeks to go. Needing just one win to wrap up the division, the Broncos lost at Carolina, at home to Buffalo, and then to the Chargers.
The Chargers were 5-1 in the division but 3-7 outside it, and had no wins against playoff teams. San Diego will host Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts Saturday night. San Diego upset the Colts in the playoffs last year, but Indy won, 23-20, in San Diego Nov. 23.
Denver won the first meeting between the increasingly bitter rivals Sept. 14 with some last-minute help from referee Ed Hochuli. When the ball slipped from Jay Cutler's grasp and was recovered by Chargers inside linebacker Tim Dobbins, Hochuli ruled it an incomplete pass instead of a fumble. Hochuli later acknowledged his decision was wrong. However, by rule, the call could not be changed and Denver kept the ball. The Broncos scored on fourth down, followed by the winning 2-point conversion.
Last night, the Chargers looked like world-beaters and Tomlinson was far more animated than at any point of the worst year of his otherwise brilliant career.
After he scored on a 14-yard run midway through the third quarter, L.T. celebrated with his teammates and then high-stepped across the field to the bench.
San Diego scored twice in 18 seconds in the third. Rivers threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to speedy Darren Sproles, making it 31-13. Defensive end Luis Castillo intercepted Cutler's deflected pass on the first play of the ensuing Denver drive, and Tomlinson then scored on his 14-yard run.
Tomlinson used a nice spin move to score on a 4-yard run late in the second quarter, adding to the 1-yard scoring run he had in the first period.
Sproles also scored on a 2-yard run in the fourth quarter. He finished with 115 yards on 14 carries. Tomlinson had 96 yards on 14 carries.
With 126 touchdowns rushing, L.T. moved into sole possession of second place on the career list. Emmitt Smith is No. 1 with 164.