Chargers 'win and hope' their way to a title

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

SAN DIEGO -- A.J. Smith stood in a corridor just off the celebratory San Diego Chargers locker room Sunday night.

He explained the Chargers' game plan for December.

"Win and hope," said Smith, San Diego's general manager. "Win and hope. That's it. That's all we could do. We had to win and hope Denver would lose. Now here we are."

Simple? Being down by three games in a division race with three games to play is never easy, but the San Diego Chargers will be remembered as one of the best comeback champions in NFL history.

With their 52-21 trouncing of the broken Denver Broncos (and the game wasn't as close as the score indicated), the Chargers became the first team since 1985 to win a division at 8-8 and the first NFL team to advance to the playoffs after starting 4-8.

With their incredible comeback and the Broncos out of the way, San Diego now focuses on the postseason, just as was expected when the 2008 season commenced. The Chargers play host to Indianapolis in an AFC wild-card round game Saturday night at 8 ET.

With their horrendous start erased, San Diego enters the postseason the dangerous team it was expected to be. It's time to start calling the Chargers Super Bowl contenders again. San Diego has won four straight games and has been dominant in three of the four games.

"We have an opportunity," Smith said. "We are in the tournament. That's all we ever wanted. We are playing well in all three phases of the game. Now we're in the tournament and let's see what happens."

The Chargers know they are playing as well as just about any team in the NFL -- except maybe Indianapolis. The 12-4 Colts have won nine straight games.

"We may be as hot as anyone," said San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers, who continued his torrid December. "Maybe all except the Colts. But it is going to be fun. Hey, we're here and that's all we could have asked for."

The Chargers, who are 14-0 in December with Rivers as their quarterback, surely know all about Indianapolis. The Colts won in San Diego on Nov. 23 on a last-second field goal. San Diego beat Indianapolis in the divisional round of the playoffs last season and it beat the Colts during the regular season in San Diego in 2007.

"We know them as well as a division opponent," San Diego safety Eric Weddle said. "We've been playing very well since we last played them."

A frequent theme in the locker room Sunday night was that the Chargers are just happy to be alive. What they are most happy about is that the stress is over. They made it.

"I just heard that we are the champions from the worst division ever," Weddle said. "Who cares? We're there. We have a shot."

Here's how Rivers put it: "We're one of 12 0-0 teams. Now let's go do something."

Once the AFC West Week 17 showdown was set up, the Chargers were confident about the outcome. Observers said the team was very relaxed all Christmas week. Denver, in contrast, appeared uptight and resigned to the fact that it would tie the NFL mark for the greatest collapse. Denver had a three-game lead in the division two weeks ago and it was never out of first place all season until Sunday night.

The Chargers were the much better team. The Broncos took an early 6-3 lead, but the Chargers were in control by the end of the first quarter and never stopped dominating. The Chargers had 491 yards of offense and controlled the clock for 36 minutes and seven seconds.

When the Chargers realized on their flight home from beating Tampa Bay in Week 16 that Denver had lost at home to Buffalo, they relaxed.

The winning and hoping mantra came true.

"We were pretty focused all week," Weddle said. "We knew that if we executed our game plan we would win. We knew that they don't play any defense so our offense would score points and we knew we could play well on defense. We knew this was a good matchup for us."

While the Chargers aren't looking forward to duplicating their 2008 road to the playoffs, they found the experience rewarding. The team was in a reflective mood Sunday night.

And it all went back to Week 2. The Chargers fell to 0-2 and Denver improved to 2-0 when Denver won in the final seconds with the help of an incorrect call by the officials.

In the locker room in Denver after the 39-38 loss, Chargers coach Norv Turner told his team not to worry, that they'd get their chance to win the division in Week 17 at home against Denver.

"He called it," San Diego linebacker Matt Wilhelm said. "Through all the trials and tribulations of this season it all came down to this against that team. It absolutely makes the whole thing worth it."