When Chargers tailback LaDainian Tomlinson banged into his rookie fullback, Jacob Hester, and shed the tackles of Broncos linebackers Nate Webster and Jamie Winborn to reach the ball over the goal line, it was not the most significant or scintillating run of his career.
But Tomlinson’s 5-yard scoring run midway through the second quarter could not have better typified the type of season it has been for San Diego.
The Chargers, who began the season with Super Bowl aspirations, often had to overcome themselves and the opposition — as well the occasional referee’s call — during the last four months. But after Sunday night’s 52-21 rout of Denver that clinched the American Football Conference West title, they are back in the NFL playoffs.
When the Chargers were beaten at home four weeks ago, they sat at 4-8, trailed Denver by three games and only hoped that the regular season finale would hold some meaning. Unlike their previous meeting, when Denver won, 39-38, on a blown call by the referee Ed Hochuli, there was no drama this time. The Chargers ran a reverse on the first play of the game and did not stop attacking until Jacob Hester’s touchdown run with just over a minute to play.
Tomlinson rushed for three touchdowns, his backup Darren Sproles raced for 115 yards, and quarterback Philip Rivers added to his NFL best passer rating for an offense that rolled up 491 yards and a season-high point total. The Chargers’ 8-8 record may not look pretty — they’re the first .500 division winner since the 1985 Browns — but they have won four in a row and will not be an easy out for Indianapolis, which despite its 12-4 record must travel to San Diego for Saturday’s game because it did not win its division. The Chargers have beaten the Colts three of their last four meetings, including the playoffs last season. On Nov. 23, Indianapolis beat the Chargers, 23-20, when Adam Vinatieri kicked a 51-yard field goal on the final play.
For the Broncos (8-8) it was the kind of night that typified their late-season collapse. After they took an early lead on Tatum Bell’s 26-yard touchdown run, a penalty on extra point moved the ball back and Matt Prater’s kick clanged off the right upright.
Jay Cutler threw two interceptions. He had a chance to pull the Broncos within 11 at halftime, but Chargers safety Paul Oliver undercut a tardy pass to Brandon Marshall and intercepted it in the end zone with 1 minute 7 seconds left in the half. Then after the Chargers had taken a 31-13 lead, Cutler’s pass was tipped by linebacker Shaun Phillips into the arms of defensive end Luis Castillo at the Denver 14. Tomlinson scored on the next play to make it 38-13.
The Broncos’ last remote hope ended when Cutler’s long fourth-down pass for a wide-open Brandon Marshall fell incomplete when Marshall tripped.