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They’re AFC West champions for the third straight year and fourth time in the last five seasons.

Does it really matter that the Chargers are 8-8 after beating the Denver Broncos 52-21 for their fourth straight win to clinch the division Sunday night at Qualcomm Stadium?

Not in today’s NFL.

Not when the Pittsburgh Steelers of 2005 won their final four games just to make the playoffs (sound familiar?) and won three straight AFC playoff games on the road and then the Super Bowl.

Not when the Indianapolis Colts of 2006 looked they couldn’t stop the run and were fading late in the season and then upset the 13-3 Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs en route to winning the Super Bowl.

Not when the New York Giants of 2007 bounced back from a dismal start that had head coach Tom Coughlin on the verge of being fired. The

Giants made the playoffs as a wild-card team, won three straight NFC playoff games on the road and then Super Bowl over the supposedly unbeatable New England Patriots.

The Colts are coming to San Diego Saturday as a wild-card entry to face the Chargers in the first-round of the playoffs, and normally an 8-8 team like the Chargers would be overmatched.

But these aren’t normal times in the balanced NFL. The only game the

Chargers lost all year by more than one score was a 23-14 at the

Buffalo Bills.

“We showed a lot of character and fight,” said quarterback Philip Rivers, an MVP candidate despite being snubbed by the league’s players in the Pro Bowl vote. “Hopefully it’s going to carry over into the playoffs.”

Don’t forget the Chargers were a bad team when they lost Oct. 5 to the

Miami Dolphins 17-10, they were a bad team when they lost Nov. 16 to the Pittsburgh Steelers 11-10 on a late field goal and they were still a bad team on Nov. 23 when they lost 23-20 to the Colts on a last-second field goal.

The other AFC playoff teams, the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans, don’t have enough offense to think the Chargers can’t play with them.

Remember that as bad as the Chargers were when they were 4-8, they were never out of the AFC West race.

The most important reason is the Broncos are a terrible football team that can’t stop the run. People are characterizing Denver blowing a three-game lead with three to play to the Chargers as a collapse. But you have to be a good team to collapse. The real mystery is how the Broncos won eight games.

“We had new life,” running back LaDainian Tomlinson said of the Chargers’ four-game winning streak. “This was really a playoff game. We had to win to keep going.”

One reason is they began to force turnovers under new defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who replaced Ted Cottrell at mid-season. The

Bolts had two more interceptions against the Broncos.

Another reason the Chargers are AFC West champions is they’re much more creative on offense. They actually ran a reverse to Vincent Jackson against the Broncos. Later in the year they finally started spreading the ball around to Darren Sproles and Jacob Hester instead of simply pounding Tomlinson into the line.

Hey, that was Sproles’ photo that NBC TV’s John Madden put up on his horse trailer as a star of the game.

— TOM SHANAHAN

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