CLEVELAND (AP)—Those lightning-bolt decals streaking across their helmets have never been more fitting. The San Diego Chargers have shocked the NFL—and maybe even themselves.
LaDainian Tomlinson rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns, Antonio Gates tied a league record with his 12th TD and San Diego captured the AFC West title Sunday, sliding through the snow for a 21-0 win over the Cleveland Browns.
One season after a league-worst 4-12 mark, the Chargers (11-3) won their eighth straight and earned their first postseason berth since 1995 when Denver lost at Kansas city. They’re division champions for the first time since 1994.
“I’ve only been here for four years, but in some ways it feels like eight,” Tomlinson said. “To go from where we were to this is awesome. I’ve dreamed of the playoffs for a long time, but it’s only been a dream.”
Reality set in quickly. As the Chargers walked off the frozen field, each player was handed an “AFC West 2004 Champions” baseball cap.
“This feels great,” said quarterback Drew Brees, who attempted just six passes. “It’s been a long road for San Diego fans and us. It feels great because we weren’t expected to do too much this year. Instead of 11-3, a lot of people thought we’d be 3-11.”
With a mistake-free offense and hard-nosed defense, coach Marty Schottenheimer has led the Chargers to their longest win streak since 1987 and turned them into the league’s most unlikely success story.
“We’re riding the wave,” fullback Lorenzo Neal said.
San Diego, which hasn’t lost since Oct. 17, also showed it can be a factor in the postseason regardless of climate. The Chargers ignored the blowing snow, a game-time temperature of 18 and a subzero wind chill to post their first shutout since 1993 and easily handle the Browns (3-11), who lost their eighth straight.
After winning on the frozen shores of Lake Erie, the Chargers should be prepared to play in frigid New England or Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
“Our confidence is just snowballing with each performance,” Gates said. “We’re playing at a tremendous level and we want it to continue.”
Tomlinson scored on a pair of 1-yard runs, his 15th and 16th TDs this season, and Gates tied a league single-season record for TD catches by a tight end with a 72-yarder in the second quarter.
The shutout was the Chargers’ first since Nov. 29, 1993, 31-0 over Indianapolis.
The Browns and about 40,000 of their heartiest fans shivered through a home finale that was a microcosm of Cleveland’s dismal season. The Browns did little on offense and gave up big plays on defense. Even when it caught a break, Cleveland couldn’t capitalize.
After recovering a fumbled punt, the Browns had first-and-goal at the San Diego 5, but rookie quarterback Luke McCown was intercepted in the end zone on the next play.
“I want to say I’m sorry,” said Browns interim coach Terry Robiskie, 0-3 since replacing Butch Davis. “This season turned ugly.”
The Chargers tried their best to block out the frosty conditions. As they walked onto the field for pregame drills, running back Jesse Chatman hollered, “Here come the boys from California.”
It took most of the first quarter for them to warm up. San Diego caught a break on a questionable roughing-the-kicker call and Tomlinson scored on a plunge for a 7-0 lead.
Tomlinson has scored a TD in 11 straight games, two shy of the NFL record shared by John Riggins and George Rogers.
Gates, the former hoops star at nearby Kent State, made it 14-0 late in the first half. Left uncovered on first down, Gates caught a pass at about the 50, tiptoed down the sideline and ran untouched through the snow for the score.
“We worked on that play all week,” said Gates, who tied Mike Ditka (1961), Jerry Smith (1967), Todd Christensen (1983) and Wesley Walls (1999) for the most TDs by a tight end in a season.
He and the Chargers want to make more history.
“This is one step,” he said. “We want to go to the Super Bowl.”
Browns RB Lee Suggs ran for 105 yards after missing three games with a toe injury. His 26-yard run in the first quarter was the longest against the Chargers this season. … Browns DE Kenard Lang sprained his right knee and didn’t play in the second half. … Former San Diego RB Hank Bauer, now a commentator for the Chargers, said the sub-zero temperatures were nothing like the AFC championship game on Jan. 10, 1982, in Cincinnati when the wind chill was minus-59. “This is Jamaica compared to that,” Bauer said. The Bengals won 27-7. … The Browns also were shut out in their 2003 home finale, 35-0 to Baltimore.