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NFL: WEEK 17

Chargers break even

San Diego wins the AFC West with an 8-8 record, overcoming a three-game deficit in the final three weeks. / CHARGERS 52, BRONCOS 21

December 29, 2008|Sam Farmer

SAN DIEGO — The pass is complete -- inexplicably, unbelievably, surrealistically complete.

The San Diego Chargers have passed the Denver Broncos for good.

Written off weeks ago as an NFL also-ran, the Chargers rewrote a bit of league history Sunday by becoming the first NFL team to make the playoffs by overcoming a three-game deficit in the last three weeks of the season.

The knockout punch was a 52-21 victory over the Broncos before a packed house at Qualcomm Stadium, a roaring crowd that never bothered to take a seat.

"You felt it more than anything when we came out for our warmups," defensive tackle Luis Castillo said. "I don't think we've ever gotten cheers that loud without having [LaDainian Tomlinson] running through the end zone for seven. They were incredible today."

The Chargers are the ninth 8-8 team to reach the playoffs and the first .500 division winners since the Cleveland Browns in 1985. The Broncos also finished 8-8 but wound up second because of a worse division record.

What matters most, however, is how teams perform at the end of the season. The Chargers have won four in a row, extending their win streak in December games to 14. Their 52 points Sunday were the most they have scored against Denver since 1968. Also, the Chargers rushed for a team-record 289 yards.

"This was the best we've played," Coach Norv Turner said. "It's the most complete game."

San Diego will play host to Indianapolis on Saturday in a first-round game. The Chargers reached the AFC championship last season by beating the Colts on the road in a division game. When the teams played this season, the Colts pulled off a 23-20 victory in San Diego. Indianapolis has won nine in a row, counting Sunday's 23-0 trouncing of Tennessee in a game filled with backups.

The Colts' victory at San Diego was five weeks ago, and the Chargers dropped to 4-8 the following week with a home loss to Atlanta. At that point, it looked as if their season was kaput.

Even the San Diego players conceded things looked very grim.

"From a mental standpoint it was super tough because, big picture, you couldn't really fool yourself to say, 'Hey, it's going to happen. We're going to get there at 8-8 and get in,' " quarterback Philip Rivers said. "But you had to just say, short term, 'Be a pro. . . . We've got four games left.' "

And now, they have even more.

To hear the players tell it, this season-saving victory started a week ago on the plane ride home from Tampa, when they learned of Buffalo's stunning upset at Denver. From that point on, San Diego simply was not going to lose.

"When we found out about that final score, we went insane," said Castillo, whose voice trembles even now when he remembers it. "I haven't seen this team so excited."

Clearly, that carried over in the game, when the Chargers' drives ended this way: field goal, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, end of half, touchdown, touchdown, punt, touchdown, touchdown.

"To me, it's simple: the guys up front totally dominated," said running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who scored three times to move ahead of Marcus Allen and into second place in all-time rushing touchdowns with 126. "They did what any good offensive line does, take control over the game."

Rivers did his part too, completing 15 of 20 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns to bring his season total to a league-best 34. That eclipses the club record set by Dan Fouts in 1981 -- the year Rivers was born.

Afterward, Rivers poked some fun at himself, saying it would take him too long to grow a Fouts-like beard, and that some of his favorite touchdowns came on dump-off passes to speedsters Tomlinson and Darren Sproles.

"Those are the fun ones," he said. "You only have to throw for three yards and they run for about 30."

But, as the Chargers have learned, the little things -- be it a short pass or a single victory in a season that looks pitch-black bleak -- can lead to big results.

--

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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