SAN DIEGO (AP) -The mild, mild AFC West belongs to LaDainian Tomlinson, Philip Rivers and the rest of the San Diego Chargers.
The Chargers won the NFL's weakest division with an 8-8 record, 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.
Mission Valley turned into Mediocre Valley for the evening as the Chargers became the first team to win a division at 8-8 since the Cleveland Browns did it in 1985.
``It was really a playoff game tonight, so we knew we had to win to keep going and that was all we needed,'' Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson, who didn't return after straining an abdominal 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.
``This is obviously history in they way we trailed the division and now won it,'' Rivers said. ``We all had the expectations to get here. We obviously went a different route than we thought we would. But we're here.
``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. ``
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.
``It's always a great game against those guys and it'll be another great game,'' Rivers said. ``You can't ask for anything more in the playoffs.''
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 Jay 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 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 first period.
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 carries.
``I give San Diego credit. They really picked us apart,'' Shanahan said.
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.
Rookie Jacob Hester scored on a 4-yard run late in the game for San Diego.
Posted: 12/29/08 12:45AM ET