San Diego’s dynamic running back has led his streaking team to the verge of a postseason berth. The Chargers (10-2), winners of six in a row, can secure at least a wild-card spot with a win Sunday, and could be AFC West champions by the end of the day if they win and Kansas City loses or ties. San Diego could even secure the division with a tie and a Chiefs loss.
Tomlinson has sparked his team’s surge with one of the best seasons ever by a running back. With three more touchdowns, he will surpass the single-season record of 28 set by Shaun Alexander of Seattle in 2005. Alexander went on to earn league MVP honors.
Tomlinson helped the Chargers pull closer to just their second trip to the playoffs in 11 seasons by rushing for 178 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s 24-21 victory over Buffalo.
Philip Rivers was 17-for-29 for 160 yards and a touchdown, and linebacker Shawne Merriman returned from a four-game steroid suspension and finished with six tackles, two sacks—giving him 10 1/2 on the season—and two forced fumbles.
Despite all the positives, Tomlinson and the Chargers are trying to stay focused on the task at hand.
“We certainly can’t overlook Denver,” Tomlinson said. “These are big weeks we’ve got coming up, so there’s no need for us to look toward the playoffs yet.”
The Chargers have pulled into a tie with Indianapolis for the best record in the AFC. San Diego is averaging a league-leading 31.4 points per game and 34.8 during its last six games.
That’s due in large part to Tomlinson, who leads the NFL with 1,324 rushing yards and 1,794 yards from scrimmage.
“His achievements, I’ve run out of superlatives,” San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer said. “It’s what he does. I’m going to tell you what—I stand on the sideline and I watch him like a fan. It’s amazing.”
If Tomlinson performs like he did in the last meeting between these teams, Schottenheimer will have another stellar performance to watch. Tomlinson scored four touchdowns and rushed four 105 yards, and caught three passes for 74 yards, as San Diego rallied to defeat Denver 35-27 on Nov. 19 after trailing 24-7.
That loss started Denver (7-5) on its current three-game skid. The Broncos, who last dropped four straight to open the 1999 season, were tied for the AFC West lead going into that game but are now in a five-way tie for the two AFC wild-card spots.
The 11th pick in the draft, Cutler was 10-for-21 for 143 yards and two touchdowns, including a 71-yard score to Brandon Marshall that tied it at 20 with 2:37 remaining in the game.
Cutler, though, threw a pair of costly interceptions, including one that was returned by the Seahawks’ Darryl Tapp for a second-quarter touchdown. The other interception was converted into a field goal.
“Welcome to the National Football League, this is reality,” coach Mike Shanahan said of what he told Cutler after the game.
Cutler didn’t seem overly discouraged by the loss or his performance.
“It never really overwhelmed me,” he said. “We had a few miscommunications, but that’s going to happen.
“To have a game like this and have two picks and have one housed, it’s tough.”
Tatum Bell returned after missing three of the last four games with a toe injury and rushed for 133 yards on 23 carries, giving the Broncos their first 100-yard rusher since Mike Bell ran for 136 in a 34-31 loss to Indianapolis on Oct. 29.
The Broncos, though, matched a season high with five turnovers last week.
“We’re a good team,” kicker Jason Elam said. “We’re not that far away, so we’re not giving up by any stretch. Just like Pittsburgh last year, they got hot at the very end, and the big thing is just to get into the playoffs.”
Denver linebacker Al Wilson sprained his neck against Seattle and had to be carted off. His status for Sunday is uncertain.
The Broncos, who will be looking to avoid being swept by the Chargers for the first time since 1982, have won two of the last three meetings at San Diego.