DENVER -- This is how it was supposed to be back in August, when all of us were trying to figure out which team in the AFC had the best shot of playing in Super Bowl XLIV.
An 8-8 playoff club in 2008 that seemed to hit its stride in the postseason. Talented roster. A quarterback coming into his own and surrounded by multiple game-breakers. A dominant linebacker, among other key players, healthy again.
This is what many of us expected to see from the San Diego Chargers: A team chugging along and looking as if it just might not stop chugging until the calendar flips to February.
"The sky's the limit," fullback Mike Tolbert said after the Chargers pounded the Denver Broncos, 32-3, to take sole possession of first place in the AFC West. "As long as we keep preparing and practicing and getting better each week, who knows? Super Bowl in Miami?"
The Chargers are 7-3. They've won five games in a row. They are playing well on both sides of the ball. They have the necessary ingredients, with Philip Rivers under center and Shawne Merriman in the defensive front seven, to be considered elite. They have exceptionally gifted athletes on both sides of the ball.
"We've just got talent all around at all positions," wide receiver Malcom Floyd said.
Who has greater momentum in the AFC? It's hard to say the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts don't, but almost every step of their ride to 10-0 has been a nerve-wracking adventure (and don't forget that they lost to the Chargers in last January's wild-card round). How do the Cincinnati Bengals look after their loss at Oakland? And wasn't that the defending Super Bowl-champion Pittsburgh Steelers that lost to the lowly Kansas City Chiefs?
"I know we're right there with all of them," linebacker Stephen Cooper said. "But at the same time, all we can worry about is what we do in San Diego and go out next week against Kansas City and try to get a win."
That 2-3 start seems so long ago it's almost as if it didn't happen. That was when the Chargers were struggling with injuries and with their identity. Their final game in that stretch was a 34-23 loss to the Broncos at home.
They've been winning ever since.
Last year's 8-8 finish seems like ancient history as well. The Chargers didn't earn a playoff spot so much as they stumbled into it, thanks primarily because of the Broncos' late-season collapse after holding a three-game lead over San Diego.
"We control our destiny," center Scott Mruczkowski said. "Last year, we needed (the Broncos) to lose. Fortunately they did and we won. It's a little different situation now."
However, the first Denver game of this season is not what most of the players in the Chargers' dressing room cite as a turning point. No, that would be one game earlier, the 38-28 loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field, where the Chargers also saw their '08 season come to an end in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The next day, Merriman, Cooper and LaDainian Tomlinson gathered the entire squad together for a players-only meeting. Their central message: "We're better than this. We're not going down this path. We've got to stop this now."
Since that time, offensive tackle Marcus McNeill has seen a team that is "more aggressive on both sides of the ball" after starting off the season "a little lax."
"I think it's an attitude thing," Merriman said. "I think it's a little bit of a confidence thing, and just realizing the potential of what we could do if we applied ourselves, and we've been doing that."
Especially on defense.
Many pundits were prepared to write off the Chargers' chances of being a serious contender after the season-ending torn triceps to nose tackle Jamal Williams in the season-opening win against the Raiders. All of a sudden, the Chargers had a gaping hole in the middle of their defense, and teams, such as the Steelers, tore right through it.
San Diego's defensive line has performed better in recent weeks, with Ogemdi Nwagbuo, Ian Scott, and Travis Johnson doing a solid job rotating in Williams' place. The Chargers are also getting more consistently strong play from their secondary.
"I think we all realize now that you're not out there by yourself," free safety Eric Weddle said. "You can rely on your teammates, trust your teammates, trust the scheme. The coaches always try to get us to pride ourselves on getting 11 guys to make one play at a time and not one guy making 11 plays. And if you think about that, it's true. Eleven guys running to the ball, doing everything right. Doing your own job and relying on your teammate next to you to be in his gap, get the pressure, spill it back to you. All those little things.
"We're really taking it to heart. If we can keep that mindset, playing each play like it's the difference between winning and losing, it makes all the difference in the world. It's going to be a tough defense to go against."
It's already a tough team to go against. And it looks as if it will become even tougher.