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Win yields title, date with history

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Sunday, Dec 10, 2006
By Casey Pearce,

As has been the case all season, the win didn’t come easy, but LaDainian Tomlinson sprinkled a little magic to help the Chargers get the job done.  Tomlinson scored three touchdowns to break the NFL single-season record that gave the Bolts (11-2) a 48-20 victory that gave them their second AFC West title in three years.

“It has a nice ring to it,” linebacker Shawne Merriman said.  “You say it fast, you say it slow.  It sounds pretty good.  We’ve overcome a lot of adversity during the entire season and I can be nothing but proud of how these guys have performed.”

After the Chargers built a 28-3 halftime lead, the Broncos scored 17-unanswered points in the third quarter to make a game of it.  A couple timely stops by the Chargers’ defense gave the Bolts a chance to slam the door. 

“We’ve been in that situation before,” quarterback Philip Rivers said.  “They put together two quick scores and all of the sudden they were close, but things are going to happen in a football game.  There is going to be adversity in every game.  We kept on playing.”

The Chargers got off to a hot start thanks to precision passing by Philip Rivers along with a little trickery.  By the end of the first quarter, the Bolts had built a 14-0 lead, thanks to a 12-yard touchdown catch by Antonio Gates and a four-yard run by Lorenzo Neal.  The latter came on a “fumble-rooskie,” a trick play that involved Rivers handing the ball between his legs to Neal.  As Rivers and Tomlinson went one way, Neal ran the opposite and pounded his way into the end zone.  

By halftime, the lead was 28-3 thanks to a one-yard touchdown run by Tomlinson and another Rivers to Gates hookup.  It capped a nearly perfect first half that saw the Bolts rack up 273 yards of total offense.  Rivers compiled a passer rating of 158.3 in the first two quarters, a perfect rating.  Defensively, Denver converted just one of six third downs as Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler completed only 4-of-11 passes for 36 yards.

The third quarter saw the tide turn a bit.  Cutler connected with tight end Tony Scheffler for a 28-yard touchdown on Denver’s opening drive of the half.  On the ensuing kickoff, returner Antonio Cromartie lost the handle, and Denver recovered at the San Diego 27 yard line. Three-plays later, it was Cutler to Scheffler again, this time for an 11-yard score.  A 33-yard Jason Elam field-goal gave the Broncos 17-unanswered points and made it a one-possession game late in the forth quarter.

“We all realized that we didn’t want what happened in Buffalo to happen again,” guard Mike Goff said.  “They scored back to back, but nobody panicked.  We just knew that we needed to help our defense and put a good drive together.”

But Rivers got hot again, and the Chargers slowly slammed the door on any hopes of a Denver comeback.  A 16-yard throw to Gates followed by a 55-yard completion to Vincent Jackson set up a 34-yard Nate Kaeding field goal, and the Chargers were rolling again. 

Down 14 points in the final quarter, Denver was force to try to convert two fourth downs, both of which were unsuccessful.  That gave Tomlinson an opportunity to make history.  He tied Shaun Alexander’s single-season touchdown record on a six-yard run. 

On the Broncos’ ensuing possession, linebacker Shawne Merriman ran his NFL-leading sack total to 12.5 on the season when he got to Cutler and forced him to fumble.  Merriman’s recovery put the Chargers on the Denver seven yard line.  The first play of the drive saw Tomlinson run left and reach the end zone, giving the Chargers a 48-20 win and allowing him to surpass Alexander.

“When it happened, I just got goose bumps,” guard Kris Dielman said.  “Talking about it gives me goose bumps. It’s awesome, and it happened to a great guy.”

The touchdown run also gave LT 103 yard on the day, allowing him to extend his streak of consecutive 100-yard games to seven.  Tomlinson’s day stole the show, but the Chargers got impressive outings from several players.  Rivers was 15-for-23 passing for 279 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a final quarterback rating of 136.0.

Gates had a season-high 104 yards on seven catches to go with his two touchdowns.  It was his first multiple-touchdown game since October 30 of last year when he scored three against Kansas City. 

“The more you play with someone, the more comfortable you feel,” Gates said.  “(Philip and I) continue to get comfortable together.  We’re continuing to work hard, and it’s good to see good things happening.”

With three weeks left in the regular season and the division in hand, the Chargers still have plenty to play for.  With the Indianapolis Colts losing Sunday, the Bolts now have the best record in the NFL and find themselves aiming for home field advantage throughout the playoffs as they take aim at bigger titles. 

“Obviously we have a lot of work ahead of us,” Schottenheimer said.  “Now we are the division champions, but I don’t think that has ever been the singular goal around here.”

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