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Ryan Mathews helps San Diego close season with a win

DENVER -- No team could have been happier to see the calendar turn to 2011 than the Denver Broncos.

They couldn't escape a dark cloud on or off the football field during a franchise-worst 12-loss season.

The San Diego Chargers (9-7) weren't that far behind, though. Their four-year reign as AFC West champions ended last week and their season came to a halt Sunday after a 33-28 victory.

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was glad to put a disappointing year behind him, and he shared a New Year's resolution with Ryan Mathews, San Diego's highly touted running back whose rookie season was bogged down by injuries and inconsistency.

"I had mentioned to him, 'Hey, this is the first game for next year. Let's go. Let's do something we can build on," Rivers said.

Mathews obliged, gaining 120 yards on 26 carries and scoring on runs of 27, 12 and 31 yards.

"I thought it was a great start to this new year," Rivers said. "He's going to be a great runner for us, a great player for us. When you're a rookie ... a lot is being asked of you."

Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow knows the feeling, and he nearly pulled off his second straight fourth-quarter comeback, scoring from 6 yards to pull Denver within five points with 26 seconds left. The Broncos recovered the onside kick and Tebow had two throws to win it that were batted down at the goal line.

"I can't ask any more than what this group gave me, great effort out there today, and that's what it's been like since I took charge," said interim coach Eric Studesville, who went 1-3 following Josh McDaniels' firing Dec. 6. "They played for each other and they played the game the way it's supposed to be played."

Right to the very end.

After falling behind 33-16 midway through the fourth quarter, the Broncos got a spark when undrafted rookie Cassius Vaughn returned the kickoff 97 yards for a TD.

Richard Quinn recovered Steven Hauschka's onside kick after Tebow's touchdown, and the Broncos had 60 yards to cover in 23 seconds, but Tebow's desperation passes were knocked down near the goal line.

"I wouldn't expect anyone to give up," said Broncos Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Lloyd, who caught five passes for 73 yards and a touchdown, bringing his season total to an NFL-high 1,448 yards one year after he was inactive for 14 games.

The Broncos (4-12) had never lost a dozen games in any of their 51 seasons, but by dipping to new depths, they managed to secure the No. 2 overall draft pick. Denver embarks on a major makeover following the McDaniels misadventure that included a bevy of personnel mistakes and a videotaping scandal.

The Broncos face a critical offseason beginning with the return of Hall of Famer John Elway, who is expected to rejoin the franchise by midweek as its chief football executive, a person with knowledge of the negotiations told The AP.

Denver has just one playoff win since Elway retired a dozen years ago after winning two straight Super Bowl trophies, and the Broncos' playoff drought is now five years.

Elway's first order of business will be to find a new field leader. Studesville has the first interview for the full-time gig. He provided the tarnished team with a fresh face and voice during the final month. At the very least, he's expected to stay on the new staff as running backs coach.

Tebow, who ran for 94 yards, gave Denver a 7-0 lead when he hit a wide open Lloyd from 14 yards. San Diego scored on its next five possessions as Rivers beat Denver for the eighth time in 10 tries.

This was the end of a dismal year in Denver that began with league sacks champion Elvis Dumervil suffering a season-ending injury in training camp and included the suicide of wide receiver Kenny McKinley.

"It's not fun," safety Brian Dawkins said. "But you want to make sure you have the right people in place to be able to build and move forward from the ashes of a tough season like we've had."

Game notes
The Pittsburgh Steelers are the only NFL team that hasn't lost a dozen or more games in a season since the schedule was expanded to 16 games in 1978. ... Chargers WR Vincent Jackson sprained his left ankle while hauling in a 26-yard pass. ... Dawkins got his second sack of the season and the 23rd of his career, which ranks fourth among NFL DBs. ... There were 7,924 no-shows.