What’s the difference between a team with eight wins advancing to the playoffs and a team with eight losses staying home for the post-season?

It’s the difference between the way fans in San Diego and Denver are viewing their teams today after the Chargers (8-8) beat the Broncos

(8-8) Sunday to win the AFC West title and send the Broncos home for the post-season based on a tiebreaker.

Imagine if the Broncos had beaten the Buffalo Bills on Dec. 21 for their ninth win that would have clinched the division.

That would have meant the Chargers could have won what would have been a meaningless game Sunday and finished with the same 8-8 record. But people would be calling for Chargers head coach Norv Turner’s head for missing the playoffs with eight losses instead of accepting his explanation for a playoff team with eight wins starting the season slowly.

That’s sports in America in the 21st century, when maybe only Vince Lombardi would be immune from criticism.

Now, Turner, while viewed through the lenses of a playoff-bound team, can cite reasons for the Chargers’ slow start that his critics nodding their heads in agreement.

For example, Turner reminded reporters Monday that the Chargers started out playing L.J. S helton at tackle and Jeremy Newberry at center in place of injured Marcus McNeill and Nick Hardwick, a pair of Pro Bowlers.

“I thought Jeremy did a good job and I thought L.J. did a good job, but you’re sitting there putting pieces together and guys who haven’t worked together and the continuity is a big part of it,” Turner said.

“We moved the ball and had a lot of yards in that game, but we got Marcus back and we got Nick back and I’m not sure they were totally back like they are now from a health standpoint. I think it took some time. Then obviously it was like we were starting over. I don’t think it was ever as bad as perceived.”

Those weren’t the only injuries that contributed to the Chargers’ 4-8 start. You couldn’t be sure heading into training camp Philip Rivers would be ready, but he put together an MVP-caliber season.

You couldn’t be sure tight end Antonio Gates would recover from delicate surgery on his foot, and he needed until late in the season to find his game.

And then you couldn’t be sure if LaDainian Tomlinson’s toe injury, inconsistent play up front or play calling was the reason he wasn’t breaking off big runs.

That’s a difference with the Chargers entering the playoffs this year compared to last year, when Gates was injured in the playoff opener against Tennes see and Rivers and Tomlinson the next week at Indianapolis.

“There is a big difference,” said linebacker Stephen Cooper. “Philip Rivers is healthy, LaDainian Tomlinson is healthy and Antonio Gates is healthy. Our leaders are stepping up. Philip is playing great football right now, he’s playing like an MVP and hopefully it carries into next Saturday.”

Tomlinson was playing his best football until a suffering a groin injury against Denver, but Cooper’s points is well taken.

The other half of the story, of course, is the improvement of the defense once Ron Rivera was promoted at midseason from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator to replace the dismissed Ted Cottrell.

“(Rivera) made it real simple for us on defense to go out there and play football,” Cooper said. “We’re getting to the quarterback a lot now, we’re not winning by audibling out defenses when we’re on the field; it’s just go out there and play whatever calls are made.”

But, of course, no one would be listening if the Chargers were an eight-loss team home for the post-season as opposed to an eight-win team preparing for the playoffs.


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