SAN DIEGO -- The mild, mild AFC West belongs to LaDainian Tomlinson, Philip Rivers and the rest of the San Diego Chargers.
» The Chargers became the first team to make the playoffs following a 4-8 start.
» The Broncos lost the final four games of the season.
» Broncos RB Tatum Bell scored his first and second touchdowns of the season.
"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 of the season to break Hall of Famer Dan Fouts' 1981 single-season team record.
"This is obviously history in the 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 on the road to the Carolina Panthers, at home to the Buffalo Bills 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 they had zero wins against playoff teams. San Diego will host Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night in the wild-card round. The Chargers upset the Colts in the divisional round last season, but Indianapolis 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 division 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 that his decision was wrong. However, by rule, the call couldn't be changed, and Denver kept the ball. The Broncos scored on fourth down, followed by the winning two-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 touchdown 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 touchdown run he had in the first period.
Sproles also scored on a 2-yard touchdown 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 rushing touchdowns, L.T. moved out of a tie with Marcus Allen and into sole possession of second place on the NFL's 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 touchdown run, and Rivers threw a 34-yard pass to Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates on a drive capped by a 12-yard touchdown throw 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.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.