Charging through December

There could not have been a worse way to end a calendar year.

New Year's Eve 2005 was a disaster for the San Diego Chargers. San Diego concluded its season with a resounding 23-7 loss to AFC West rival Denver, which beat up the Chargers despite playing many backups because its playoff fate was already sealed. The Chargers finished 9-7, three games worse than the previous season.

Punctuating the miserable day was a serious shoulder injury suffered by quarterback Drew Brees. There was no New Year's cheer for the Chargers after that loss.

What a long time ago that was. That may have been a painful day for San Diego, but it also was the last time the city has felt the sting of a December defeat.

Since that discouraging holiday afternoon, the Chargers have won 16 consecutive December games, making them the most clutch, late-season team in the league. The streak is an NFL record for December dominance.

It is ironic that Brees was injured in San Diego's last December loss. His injury made it an easy decision for the Chargers to turn over the franchise to quarterback Philip Rivers, who sat and watched Brees play during Rivers' first two NFL seasons after being the No. 4 draft pick in 2004.

Rivers has become the face of the organization for his clutch December play. He has been behind center in all 16 of San Diego's December wins since 2006 and hasn't lost a December start in the NFL.

San Diego has won three straight AFC West titles as it pulled away or played catch-up with its brilliant late-season play. Last year, San Diego caught Denver in the final three games of the season despite being three games out heading into Week 15.

This year, San Diego enters Week 15 with an eight-game winning streak. If San Diego defeats visiting Cincinnati on Sunday, the Chargers will virtually wrap up the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs.

The Chargers enter the game with plenty of confidence.

"It would be nice to stay in this rhythm," Rivers said. "We hope to carry [the December momentum] into January."

Predictably, the Chargers can't point to any magic reason why they have been the NFL's best December team the past four years.

"I don't think it's as simple as just the month. It's not like we just play well because the calendar says December," said standout outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, who was a rookie the last time San Diego lost in December.

"I think it is a process. We are a team that gets better as the season goes along. So, once December rolls around, we're playing our best football because we went through the process of becoming a good team."

Merriman made clear that the leadership of coach Norv Turner is a major reason why the Chargers are on track when the season gets to this critical point. He is unbeaten in December as the Chargers' coach since taking over in 2007. Turner is expected to be rewarded for his clutch coaching. The San Diego Union Tribune reported Turner is assured to get a contract extension after this season. He has one more year remaining on his deal.

"Norv has done a hell of a job," Merriman said. "Our great record down the stretch is a testament to him. He's starts it all."

Turner, though, attributes the Chargers' success to all three phases of his team making plays. He said there is a high level of accountability throughout the team.

That was evident last week in Dallas when the Chargers beat the Cowboys 20-17. San Diego simply made more plays than Dallas on offense, defense and special teams.

"I think there are so many things that go into it, but as we get through an entire season, our guys understand that everyone is going to have opportunities to make plays," Turner said. "As you look at us in December, each game you see guys making the plays that jump out at you and make a difference. Everyone is alive and is feeling they have a chance to be that guy."

During those 16 straight wins, San Diego has seen numerous players step up and make big plays.

"We know this is our team to shine," said San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson, who, like Merriman, joined the team in 2005. Jackson had seven catches, including a key 39-yard catch in the fourth quarter, against the Cowboys.

"We all know that this is the time of year where the quality teams separate themselves. We've been fortunate enough to make those plays in December."

Yes, that final day of 2005 was a long time ago.

Bill Williamson covers the NFL for ESPN.com.