Tuesday, December 18, 2007 | Funny how quickly the perception of the Chargers’ season and head coach Norv Turner has changed.

In just a few short weeks, the Chargers went from a team perceived to have squandered its season to one that clinched an AFC West title for the third time in four years with Sunday’s 51-14 win over the Detroit Lions.

Now there’s a team San Diego fans would love to hate — the Lions, losers of six straight after a 6-2 start.

Remember when fans chanted, “Marty! Marty!” late in the home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs?

They were referring to the same Marty Schottenheimer they wanted to run out of town after playoff losses following a 12-4 season in 2004 and 14-2 in 2006.

Remember when fans booed after the first two plays against the Baltimore Ravens — a game the Chargers won 32-14 — when the Ravens stuffed off-tackle runs and quarterback Philip Rivers responded by yelling back at the fans?

How many seasons ago was that? Was Harland Svare still coaching? Kevin Gilbride?

Were fans still pouring beer on players, prompting the club to erect the canopy that now hangs over the entrance to the tunnel to the locker room?

It’s really nothing new for fans to panic. It’s the price we pay for sports starting out as fun and evolving into a high-priced business that is taken too personally.

But I wondered what amused the Chargers players the most about the fans’ response to the dark days of the 2007 season.

“Probably the funniest thing was the boos after we ran those two plays that got stuffed,” center Nick Hardwick said. “People booed Norv. People booed Philip. Now look — they’re both heroes. Philip played great, even though he was injured.”

Most of the players just shrugged it off the irony of fans overreacting.

“It’s just the nature of the business,” tight end Antonio Gates said. “We struggled early in the season, but (Turner) continued to coach and prepare us to play well. I’m happy for him and the team. We stuck it out. We were able to accomplish one of our goals — winning the AFC West. It’s a testament to the character of the guys in this locker room.”

Cornerback Quentin Jammer said the tough times the Chargers went through before clinching a playoff berth isn’t that unusual. He pointed to the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers as recently as 2005.

The Steelers won four playoff games en route to the Super Bowl title, but in the regular season their record went from 3-2 to 7-2 to 7-5 to sneaking into the playoffs as a wild-card team with an 11-5 record.

“The funniest thing is people were writing us off,” Jammer said. “People were saying we’re terrible and they weren’t going to the games anymore. It’s a long season. Anything can happen in 16 games.”

Added outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, “When we were 1-3, people were saying our season was over and the season was only a quarter the way through. We played the season in quarters. We went 3-1 the next quarter. Now we’re trying to finish up the last quarter without a loss before the playoffs. We’re in a position we expected to be in.”

Defensive end Jacques Cesaire said fans take for granted how hard it is to win in the NFL.

“We love the fans, but sometimes they can be a pain in the butt,” Cesaire said. “Fans were spoiled by 14-2 last year, but we were spoiled, too. Fans forget that this is the NFL, and other teams have smart offensive coordinators and defensive coordinators. I’m proud of the way guys kept working hard on this team. Philip has stood in there all year and been poised. He’s done a great job of leading this team.”

With all the despair that hung over San Diego, there are now NFL hallmarks to point to.

Did you know LaDainian Tomlinson might win the NFL rushing title?

His 1,311 yards trails Pittsburgh’s Willie Parker by only six yards despite sitting out the second half of Sunday’s victory. Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson trails Tomlinson by 111 yards before the Vikings’ game Monday night.

Did you know Shawne Merriman, despite missing Sunday’s game, is only two sacks off the NFL lead? He has 11.5, a strong number even if he doesn’t play again in the regular season while resting his knee injury.

Did you know Antonio Cromartie leads the NFL in interceptions with 10?

Did you know that at 9-5 the Chargers are two wins shy of an 11-win season?

It’s a mark the franchise — other than the recent 2004 and 2006 seasons — has met or surpassed only four other seasons: 1979, 12-4; 1980, 11-5; 1992, 11-5; and 1994, 11-5.

The last time the Chargers went to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons they finished 11-5 in 1994 and 9-7 in 1995.

“Everyone is excited,” Hardwick said. “We talked early in the year about building this thing to a crescendo. We want to escalate things to a frenzy, and look what’s happening. Look at the six turnovers we got (against the Lions) and the field position the defense gave. Look at the play of special teams and the big hits. We’re making big plays on offense and defense. We’re coming together.”

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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