SAN DIEGO (AP) -To some San Diego Chargers, there's a playoff seeding to secure and a rushing title to win.
To others, such as defenders Luis Castillo and Shawne Merriman, they're simply happy to be playing.
The Chargers maintained the inside track to the AFC's No. 3 seed and helped spring LaDainian Tomlinson into the NFL rushing lead with a 23-3 win over division rival Denver on Monday night.
They also welcomed back Castillo after a six-week absence following ankle surgery, and got Merriman back after he sat out one game with a sprained left knee.
Castillo made an immediate impact, sacking Jay Cutler on Denver's first drive and forcing a fumble that Merriman recovered.
Castillo simply wants the AFC West champion Chargers (10-5) to finish strong, then keep playing that way in January.
``Honestly, at the end of the day, we were the first seed last year and it didn't matter,'' the defensive end said. ``We still lost and we still got knocked out. The whole focus this year was just to get to the playoffs. Get to the dance and we can take it from there. That's the focus right now. Let's get right. We're going to play an intense game in Oakland and we're going to do things the right way.''
If the Chargers win at Oakland on Sunday, they'll wrap up the No. 3 seed and the right to host either Tennessee or Cleveland in the wild-card round. That would mean missing Jacksonville, which handed San Diego its last loss, 24-17 on Nov. 18.
The Chargers have won five straight since then, and nine of 11 overall dating to their stunning 1-3 start under coach Norv Turner.
Castillo has a good point. The Chargers went an NFL-best 14-2 last year before imploding in a home playoff loss to the New England Patriots. A month later, coach Marty Schottenheimer was fired due to front-office friction.
Then again, LaDainian Tomlinson has a good point, too.
``I think it's pretty important to be the third seed and play the last team in,'' said Tomlinson, who swooped into the NFL rushing lead with 1,418 yards. ``Right now it'll be Tennessee or Cleveland. We're familiar with Tennessee, because we played 'em this year. And Cleveland, we're kind of familiar with because we played them in the past.''
The Chargers rallied to beat Tennessee in overtime in a bruising game on Dec. 9. That's when Merriman and quarterback Philip Rivers sprained their left knees, and fullback Lorenzo Neal broke his right leg.
Merriman sat out last week's blowout of Detroit, but returned against the Broncos.
``It felt real good,'' Merriman said. ``I didn't have to be wandering on the sidelines thinking about what I wanted to do. Felt good to be back on the field again.''
Merriman, voted last week to his third straight Pro Bowl, said he doesn't care who the Chargers face in the playoffs.
``I'm just happy to be in the playoffs and get a chance to get our foot in the door,'' Merriman said. ``We're slowly getting guys back like Luis. Hopefully this last game this last week gives guys a chance to get healthy again and get ready for the playoffs.''
Castillo said he played through pain during the first few plays.
``Six weeks is a long time to not play this game,'' he said. ``To able to have the chance to get back on that field, to be part of something so special that we have going on right now, and to feel like you helped this team win, it's a great feeling and I've missed it. Boy, I've missed it.''
Tomlinson had 107 yards and one touchdown on 19 carries. He sat out the bulk of the second half after feeling his hamstring grab for the second straight week.
Tomlinson's route to his second straight rushing title got easier when Pittsburgh's Willie Parker (1,316) broke his right lower leg on Thursday night, finishing his season.
L.T.'s closest pursuer is Minnesota rookie Adrian Peterson, who has 1,305 yards after being held to just 27 yards on nine carries in a loss to Washington on Sunday night. Peterson set the NFL single-game record of 296 yards against San Diego on Nov. 4.
Tomlinson said the rushing title is as important to his linemen as it is to him.
``These guys were coming up to me every week, 'How close are you?' `` Tomlinson said. ``I could see it in their eyes that that's important to them. Not to say that it's not important, but if they have that much concern, it's something they take pride in, I definitely want to deliver for them.''
Besides, Tomlinson said, ``It gets pretty boring on the sidelines.''
Notes: K Nate Kaeding bruised his lower left leg when he was in on a tackle on the opening kickoff. Turner said the injury could be similar to the broken fibula suffered by Neal. ``We've got to kind of look into it and see what the deal is,'' Kaeding said. ``I'm a kicker. I'm not Lorenzo. I'm not running hard or blocking guys, so I think I'll be able to make it.''

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