LaDainian Tomlinson (Al Messerschmidt/Getty)
The Chargers have gone from possibly playing out the string to playing for another AFC West title. Thanks to a three-game winning streak, the Chargers face the fading Broncos Sunday with a division championship, and more important, a playoff invitation at stake.
Many had given the Chargers up for dead when they sputtered at midseason to fall three games behind the Broncos with three to play. But road wins over Kansas City and Tampa Bay -- and the Broncos losing in those weeks -- have given the team new life.
A victory Sunday would give the Chargers and Broncos the same 8-8 record. Because the teams would have split their season series, the Chargers would advance based on a 5-1 divisional record.
"I can't say enough about our guys in terms of the way they've handled the last month," coach Norv Turner said. "The way they prepared, the way they competed."
The Chargers are still ticking, in part, due to quarterback Philip Rivers.
Rivers is the NFL's top-rated quarterback and leads the NFL with 32 touchdown passes. He is coming off a career-high four-touchdown game in leading the Chargers past the Buccaneers.
The Chargers transformed from a running team to a pass-oriented one because Turner felt comfortable making the switch with the accurate Rivers at the controls.
Despite a sensational season, Rivers was passed over for the Pro Bowl.
"I think it just shows to me, as a quarterback, the most important stat is wins and losses and I've said that all along," Rivers said.
For most of the season, the Chargers' record has been turned upside down. They started the year with high expectations but staggered to a 4-8 mark when losing five of six games.
At that point, Rivers was overlooked as a Pro Bowl candidate. And the Chargers weren't being included in any playoff discussions.
But that's no longer the case. The Chargers will enter Sunday's showdown in San Diego with momentum, while the Broncos are reeling from not already clinching the division.
With its renewed importance, the game was switched from its afternoon start to the prime-time slot on Sunday night.
While Rivers had a big day in the win over Tampa Bay, the Chargers' running game also showed some spark. LaDainian Tomlinson rushed for 90 yards, averaging 4.3 yards per carry.
The run blocking, at times, looked as sharp as it has been in a year in which Tomlinson has rushed for 100 yards just twice.
Those 90 yards sent Tomlinson over the 1,000-yard mark this season, the eighth straight season he's accomplished it. He's the third player in NFL history to open with eight 1,000-yard seasons.
And the Chargers season? It has a buzz that was last felt when the season started.
With one win, the Chargers' goal of reaching the playoffs is fulfilled.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think we are playing like a playoff team. Hopefully it's not too late." -- RB LaDainian Tomlinson, on the Chargers' late-season surge.
TRENDING: The Chargers have recently played their best football in December. A win Sunday over Denver would give the Chargers 14 straight victories in December. Their last December loss came to the Broncos on Dec. 24, 2005. The Broncos prevailed that day in a game in which QB Drew Brees injured his shoulder. That, in part, led to the Chargers' decision to let Brees flee as a free agent and to turn the offense over to Philip Rivers.
--SS Clinton Hart (neck) returned after missing two games and had a big fumble recovery in the win over the Buccaneers.
--WR Malcom Floyd (collapsed lung) could skip his second straight game on Sunday.
--WR Legedu Naanee took advantage of his playing time with Malcom Floyd being out. Naanee had two catches for 29 yards.
--K Nate Kaeding kicked a franchise-record 57-yard field goal.
--FB Mike Tolbert (shoulder) returned and played well on special teams.
--TE Antonio Gates had two touchdown catches, which give him 51 in his career. Gates got to 50 scoring receptions in 92 games, the fastest to reach 50 in NFL history.