Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008 | With a 4-7 record after Sunday’s 23-20 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, how is it possible the Chargers are still in the running to advance to the playoffs?

Look at who they’re chasing in the AFC West — the Denver Broncos, a team that’s a shell of its recent tradition.

And it’s not like the Bolts have to worry the Oakland Raiders are going to sneak into the race, although, inconceivably, the Raiders (3-8) are only one game behind the Chargers.

If the Broncos can lose at home 31-10 to the Raiders to fall to 6-5, they’ll lose again. And if there is a division title at stake, they’ll most certainly lose to the Chargers in the regular-season finale Dec. 28 in the Ed Hochuli Bowl.

As long as the Broncos don’t finish 10-6, the Chargers are still in the race. It will take more than beneficial calls from Ed Hochuli (he of the quick whistle in the Chargers’ loss Sept. 14 at Denver) working their games for the Broncos to win four of their last five.

Leading up to the Chargers game, the Broncos are at the New York Jets (8-3), home against the Kansas City Chiefs (1-10), at the Carolina Panthers (8-3) and at home against the Buffalo Bills (6-5). They can easily lose two of those games to get to seven losses.

The best the Chargers can finish is 9-7 by winning their final five games at home against Atlanta (7-4), at home against Oakland (3-8), at Kansas City (1-10), at Tampa Bay (8-3). But this might be a year when an 8-8 record wins with the AFC West.

And if the Chargers get into the playoffs, do they need to fear the AFC East’s New York Jets and New England Patriots? They already beat them.

Do they need to fear the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3)? They played a terrible game and lost to the Steelers on a last-second field goal.

Do they need to fear the Tennessee Titans (10-1) or Colts (7-4) in the AFC South? The Titans don’t have a dominant player on offense and the Chargers could have beaten the Colts if they had managed the clock better.

Before this season is over, the Chargers need to get more creative on offense. They’re still playing power football, although they don’t have the personnel to play power football anymore. They’re pounding LaDainian Tomlinson into the line, and that’s not his game.

Get LT out in space. Did you see how the Colts went ahead 17-10 on a 1-yard pass to running back Dominic Rhodes? They split him wide and inside linebacker Stephen Cooper was lost when he had to follow him outside. Rhodes made a simple cut inside for the 1-yard TD toss.

I’d like to see LT one-on-one on linebackers. That’s how the Chargers scored their last touchdown on a pass to fullback/running back Jacob Hester when they finally gave the rookie a chance to show what he can do — in the 11th game of the season.

Defensively, it’s too late this year, but next year the Chargers need to consider going to a 4-3 defense. The alignment might suit their talent better since Luis Castillo and Igor Olshanksy — 300-pounders that can play inside — aren’t mounting a pass rush as ends.

Looking back on San Diego State football hires, who might have been the coach the school missed on?

That would be Dick Tomey, the former Arizona coach who has rebuilt San Jose State by leading the Spartans to a 9-4 record and New Mexico Bowl win in 2006, and back to bowl eligibility this year at 6-6.

The Spartans were far worse off than the Aztecs when Tomey took over in 2005 with far fewer resources than SDSU.

Back in 2002, Tomey was interviewed for the San Diego State job. He had suddenly stepped down at Arizona in 2000, but the school still had to pay him $200,000 in 2002 even if he took another job.

In other words, the Aztecs, who were unable to afford Oregon offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford before he took the job at Cal, could get Tomey because he wasn’t looking for a big payday.

At the time, Tomey was 62 and the fear was he would retire on the job, similar to former SDSU coaches Denny Stolz in football and Jim Brandenburg in basketball.

He’s now 70 and still going strong. One of San Jose State’s six wins for bowl eligibility was 35-10 on Sept. 13 against the Aztecs.

The Aztecs hired Tom Craft on the cheap, and Craft probably would have succeeded if he didn’t have so many people inside the SDSU program deliberately working to undermine him from the day he was hired — or if he’d had the resources the university finally realized it needed to invest when it let Craft go and hired Chuck Long, the latest coach to have been dismissed by the Aztecs.

What the Aztecs need to do now is hire a name coach that can excite the community and sell tickets before the season opener. Names like Dennis Green or Terry Bowden.

This way, the Aztecs could worry later about whether they’d retire on the job, because they hit the ground running and sold plenty of tickets; boosting recruiting no matter the win-loss record.

Green, who turns 60 in February, lives in Del Mar and is teaching a class on San Diego State’s campus. He has said he’s enjoying life as a father taking his kids to their youth league games, fishing and doing a little radio on the side.

But maybe after a couple of years of that, he might feel refreshed to coach again, especially since he wouldn’t have to relocate. Coaches never shake the bug.

Bowden, who has been doing TV work since leaving Auburn, has made it clear to San Diego State that he’s very interested.

Is there any good news in San Diego football this year?

Yes, and you weren’t paying attention if you didn’t see University of San Diego senior wide receiver John Matthews play for the Toreros this year.

In fact, USD needs to consider buying a replay screen for its scoreboard. In recent seasons, there have been too many spectacular plays by Matthews and quarterback Josh Johnson, now a rookie with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that deserved another look.

Matthews, who rewrote USD’s record book for receivers, finished the year ranked No. 1 in the Football Championship Subdivision for catches (102), catches per game (9.27), total receiving yards (1,478), receiving yards per game (134.36) and touchdown catches (21).

The 6-foot, 203-pounder is considered an NFL prospect, largely for his strength and ability to get off bumps at the line of scrimmage. An Indianapolis Colts scout was the latest NFL scout on hand at Saturday’s win over UC Davis when Matthews caught 13 balls for 161 yards and a touchdown and was named the Pioneer Football League Player of the Week.

“He’s a big-time producer,’ USD head coach Ron Caragher said. ‘I’m very confident he will have success at the next level.”

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

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