It’s all or nothing in mediocre AFC West
SAN DIEGO ” The San Diego Chargers figure they were somewhere over Louisiana or east Texas when they got the news the Denver Broncos had lost to the Buffalo Bills.
“The plane almost came down, man,” tight end Antonio Gates said Monday. “Everybody went nuts and everybody was jumping around and having fun.”
In a remarkable afternoon in an incredibly mediocre division, the Chargers kept their playoff hopes alive by winning 41-24 at Tampa Bay and then getting some major help when the Broncos blew an early 13-0 lead and lost 30-23 at home to the Bills.
That sets up an all-or-nothing game for the division title on Sunday night when the Broncos (8-7) visit the Chargers (7-8) in the season finale.
After trailing the Broncos by three games with three to go, the Chargers finally control their own fate. But, as they noted Monday, they still have to win on Sunday night for the season to mean anything.
“It wasn’t about the fact that Denver lost, it was much more at stake for us as a team if we were able to have an opportunity,” Gates said. “A loss by Denver doesn’t guarantee anything. It had nothing to do with that. It was that we were in a position to redeem the slow start of the season and that to us meant more than anything.”
While it may seem a bit unappetizing that a team with a sub-.500 record will be playing for its third straight AFC West title, the Chargers aren’t complaining.
“It’s tough, man, but that’s what this league’s about,” said Jackson, who had seven catches for 111 yards at Tampa Bay to become the first Chargers wide receiver since Curtis Conway in 2001 to have a 1,000-yard season. “If you would have asked us four weeks ago, nobody would have been here talking about playoffs. It’s exciting. It’s just nice to be on this end of it. We’ve got one more game to play. We’re not in it yet. It’s not time to celebrate. It’s just time to appreciate the cards we were dealt and go ahead and play it out.”
What adds to the intrigue of the Broncos-Chargers showdown, besides the fact both teams stumbled around a good deal of the season, is the way the Broncos beat the Chargers on Sept. 14 at Denver.
The Chargers were left stunned and 0-2 when referee Ed Hochuli blew a call late in the game. Although they should have lost possession on Jay Cutler’s fumble, the Broncos instead scored easily against the Chargers’ porous defense and then got a 2-point conversion for a 39-38 win.
The Chargers were picked by many to reach the Super Bowl, then stumbled to 4-8.
For the last three weeks, they’ve looked more like the team everyone expected to see, although the Chargers needed a desperate late rally for a 22-21 win in Kansas City on Dec. 14. Coach Norv Turner said the victory at Tampa Bay was one of San Diego’s most complete games of the year.
“Looking back on it now, those last-minute games kind of jumped on our backs a little bit and slowed us down,” Jackson said. “It took a little bit, and I believe this team has a resiliency, and we showed it late in the year.”
Gates said the key to San Diego’s rebound was realizing it’s a 16-game season.
“We were 4-8. We could have shut it down,” Gates said. “Honestly, you know, we could have said, ‘You know what, Denver ain’t going to lose three in a row.’ We could have taken that mind-set. But it was more about the San Diego Chargers and what we were trying to accomplish. Eventually that gave us a chance to sit here and play.”
Gates, one of San Diego’s two Pro Bowlers, had two touchdown catches Sunday, giving him eight this season and 51 for his career. He reached 50 in his 92nd game, fastest in league history for a tight end. Jerry Smith was the previous fastest, doing it in 100 games.