SAN DIEGO (AP)—The San Diego Chargers’ long nightmare is coming to an end.
And if the Chargers do go on and break their eight-year playoff drought, they can thank their anonymous defense.
The Chargers—yes, the Chargers—took firm control of the AFC West by hanging on to beat the Denver Broncos 20-17 in a wild one on Sunday. San Diego’s defense saved the day by intercepting Jake Plummer four times, including in the end zone in the closing minutes, and LaDainian Tomlinson ran for two touchdowns.
“Our defense carried us today,” Tomlinson said. “They were the reason we won this game.”
On a rainy, cold and windy afternoon, the Chargers proved that water and electricity do mix, although it took them until the final play to do so.
Playing their biggest game in 10 years, the Chargers (9-3) clinched their first winning season since 1995 and took a two-game lead in the division over Denver (7-5).
San Diego is on a six-game winning streak for the first time since going 6-0 to open the 1994 season, when it made its only Super Bowl appearance. Overall, the Chargers have won eight of nine.
And to think, they were an NFL-worst 4-12 last year.
Points were hard to come by in this game, but true to the teams’ AFL roots, it wasn’t boring.
The Chargers scored only three points in the second half, when they were bailed out by their defense.
The biggest play came with 3:39 left after the Broncos drove the Chargers’ 7-yard line. Safety Jerry Wilson intercepted Plummer in the end zone after cornerback Drayton Florence—who intercepted Plummer in the game’s opening minutes—tipped a fade pass intended for Rod Smith.
“I was telling those cornerbacks, ‘Be aggressive and just get a hand on the ball,”’ Wilson said. “Especially in this weather, it was bound to happen.”
Florence was making just his second start of the season because cornerback Sammy Davis is out indefinitely with a leg injury.
“I just played through his hands and read his eyes and made a big play,” Florence said.
Plummer said throwing the fade route was just one of his options on the play.
“It was a jump-ball situation. I trust Rod. He went up there and almost had it. I wish I handed the ball off but you can’t go back,” Plummer said.
The Broncos got one last chance and reached midfield. Darius Watts caught a fourth-down pass with 8 seconds left but stayed in bounds to get the first down and the clock ran out.
Tomlinson finished with 113 yards on 30 carries, pushing him past the 1,000 yard mark for the fourth straight season.
Brees, the biggest reason behind the Chargers’ turnaround, had his least-productive game of the season, completing just 14 of 27 passes for 106 yards and no touchdowns. His club-record streak of 194 passes without an interception ended in the first quarter when he overthrew Gates and was picked off by Kenoy Kennedy.
Plummer threw for 278 yards, but completed just 16 of 40 passes for no touchdowns.
A steady rain eased up in the first quarter, but the conditions helped contribute to two turnovers by each team in the first 15 minutes, plus a missed field goal attempt by Elam.
San Diego intercepted Plummer three times in the first half, leading to 10 points.
Denver had lousy field position most of the game, which helped set up the touchdown that gave San Diego a 14-7 lead in the second quarter.
Denver’s Micah Knorr had to punt from the end zone and Eric Parker returned it 19 yards to the 21. Brees hit Gates on a 10-yard pass on third down and Tomlinson scored on a 1-yard run three players later, starting left but cutting inside.
Rookie Nate Kaeding had a pair of 23-yard field goals, one at the end of the first half and the other late in the third quarter, to give the Chargers a 20-7 lead.
Denver pulled to 20-14 on Reuben Droughns’ 4-yard run early in the fourth quarter.
Tomlinson scored on a 5-yard run on the Chargers’ opening drive. Denver tied it on Tatum Bell’s 16-yard run early in the second quarter.
Tomlinson scored a touchdown in his ninth straight game, tying a team record held by Hall of Famer Lance Alworth and Natrone Means. … The Broncos hadn’t thrown four interceptions since 2001.