The mild, mild AFC West belongs to LaDainian Tomlinson, Philip Rivers and the rest of the San Diego Chargers.
The Chargers won their third straight division title by
finishing 8-8, becoming the first team to go from 4-8 to the
playoffs by routing the Denver Broncos 52-21 in the Ed Hochuli Bowl
on Sunday night.
"This is obviously history in they way we trailed the division
and now won it," Rivers said after San Diego's fourth straight win
- and 14th straight in the month of December. "We all had the
expectations to get here. We obviously went a different route than
we thought we would. But we're here."
It really, truly wasn't the way anyone thought the talented
Chargers would get to January, considering they were a popular
preseason pick to make it to the Super Bowl.
Mission Valley turned into Mediocre Valley as the Chargers
became the first team to win a division at 8-8 since the Cleveland
Browns did it in 1985. They're the ninth team overall to make it to
the playoffs at 8-8; only two of the previous teams to do it
managed to win a game in the playoffs.
Tomlinson, who didn't return after straining a groin muscle in
the third quarter, had his first three-touchdown game of the
season. Rivers threw his 33rd and 34th touchdown passes to break
Hall of Famer Dan Fouts' 1981 team single-season record.
"It's a tribute to the guys who kept believing and kept
fighting," said Tomlinson, who plans to have an MRI exam on
Monday. "Very prideful guys in that locker room. And at the point
we were 4-8, we didn't know what was going to happen with Denver,
but for us it was about how were we going to finish."
Said Rivers: "Chances were slim, but we kept playing hard and
fighting just for us to salvage whatever we could salvage."
Denver (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.
"Obviously it's not the same football team that started the
year," Denver coach Mike Shanahan said of a team that started 3-0.
"It was kind of frustrating to see that three-game lead come
down to this and see San Diego kind of take off on us," Broncos
receiver Brandon Marshall said. "But, hey, that's football.
"We did have to score," quarterback Jay Cutler said. "They
punted once, I think. It puts a lot of pressure on us."
The Chargers were 5-1 in the division but 3-7 outside it, and
had zero wins against playoff teams. San Diego will host Peyton
Manning and the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night. San Diego
upset the Colts in the playoffs last year, but Indy won 23-20 in
San Diego on Nov. 23.
Denver won the first meeting between the increasingly bitter
rivals on Sept. 14 with some last-minute help from referee Ed
Hochuli. When the ball slipped from 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.
On Sunday 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 midway through the third
quarter. Rivers threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to speedy Darren
Sproles to make 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 wasn't sure when he hurt his groin and said it didn't
bother him on his final TD run.
"I don't know how bad it is," he said. "I'm not going to jump
to conclusions or say anything more about it because I really don't
know at this point."
San Diego set a team record with 289 rushing yards.
"We physically beat the hell out of them. I can't say it any
other way," Pro Bowl left guard Kris Dielman said.
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
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
With 126 touchdowns rushing, L.T. moved out of a tie with Marcus
Allen and into sole possession of second place on the career list.
Emmitt Smith is No. 1 with 164.
Rivers picked apart Denver's porous secondary and also threw two
blocks on reverses by wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Jackson's
diving catch of a 37-yard pass helped set up L.T.'s first TD run,
and Rivers threw a 34-yarder to Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates on
a drive capped by a 12-yard scoring pass to tight end Brandon
Manumaleuna early in the second quarter.
Denver's Tatum Bell had touchdown runs of 26 and 37 yards. San
Diego's Nate Kaeding kicked a 28-yard field goal.
San Diego rookie Jacob Hester scored on a 4-yard run late in the
"It's obviously very disappointing," Shanahan said. "I give
San Diego credit. They really picked us apart."
Notes: Gates sprained an ankle and didn't come back. Coach Norv
Turner said Tomlinson and Gates could have returned, but the team
wanted to be conservative with them. ... Rivers was 15-of-20 for