SAN DIEGO The team that parity forgot is about to play its biggest game in a long, long time.
If the surprising San Diego Chargers (8-3), powered by a motivated lame-duck quarterback and an unstoppable tight end, beat the Denver Broncos (7-4) Sunday, they'll clinch their first winning season since way back in 1995 remember Stan Humphries, Natrone Means and Bobby Ross?
Just as important, they would take firm control of the AFC West, with a two-game lead with four to play.
How long has it been since the Chargers played such a meaningful game?
''It's got to be back in '94,'' said long snapper David Binn, who was a rookie that year. ''We were playing Pittsburgh the last game of the year, for home field.''
The Chargers won, got a first-round bye and then shocked the Steelers three weeks later in the AFC championship game in Pittsburgh.
After getting embarrassed by San Francisco in the Super Bowl, the Chargers made it back to the playoffs in 1995, only to lose at home to the Indianapolis Colts in a wild-card game.
Then they disappeared to the depths normally occupied only by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Binn is the only Chargers player who has suffered through every bit of a brutal eight-year playoff drought, which has been littered with records such as the 1-15 debacle in 2000 and last year's NFL-worst 4-12.
Now the Chargers are driving the fast lane back to respectability. Since losing 23-13 at Denver on Sept. 26, they've won seven of eight games, including their last five.
''This game's big because it's going to put us two games up on Denver,'' Binn said. ''If you look at the big picture, every game we win, each game after that becomes that much bigger, just because you start putting yourself in better and better position.''
Then again, the burden of proof is still on the Chargers. If they lose Sunday, they'd be deadlocked again with the Broncos, who would hold the tiebreaker advantage.
That's why LaDainian Tomlinson isn't too excited.
''When we make it to the playoffs, then I'll be real excited,'' the star running back said. ''We've still got a few games to go to assure ourselves of a playoff spot. With that said, we feel like we haven't done anything yet.''
Tomlinson does expect the atmosphere at sold-out Qualcomm Stadium to be ''electric.''
The Chargers certainly aren't perfect. They're 1-3 against teams with winning records.
Although rookie Nate Kaeding kicked a 43-yard field goal to beat Kansas City 34-31 last Sunday, he's missed three of his last six attempts and was yanked off kickoff duty in favor of punter Mike Scifres after sending one out of bounds.
And, dating to 1996, San Diego is 7-26 in December.
But the Chargers are playing with confidence and have won four of five at home.
Drew Brees, who's thrown 21 touchdown passes and just three interceptions, said the turning point came after the loss in Denver dropped them to 1-2.
''We walked in the locker room and everyone looked at one another and said, 'OK, we have one of two choices: either we can do the here-we-go-again deal and go down, or we can form an attitude and get it going right now.'
''We have been very good since then and I think we have formed that attitude. We are making those plays that we did not make in that game.''
Brees will be a free agent at season's end and most likely will be supplanted by Philip Rivers. He's at least making this an interesting season.
Brees has thrown 11 of his TD passes to second-year tight end Antonio Gates, who played hoops, not football, at Kent State. And the Chargers are averaging 29 points, second best in the NFL.
San Diego got a big boost from the Oakland Raiders, who upset the Broncos 25-24 Sunday night in Denver.
''We're good, you know?'' quarterback Jake Plummer said. ''We lost one game. It doesn't mean we're out of it. We're fine.''
Broncos safety John Lynch will face two of his former teammates from Tampa Bay who have helped revitalize the Chargers, receiver Keenan McCardell and left tackle Roman Oben.
''If we take care of business, we are on top of the division again,'' Lynch said. ''There is no room for moping around because we're facing a very good football team. And that is very apparent by watching the film.''
Brees said this Chargers team is different from the ones in recent years that started fast and then collapsed.
''Oh, heck yeah. Two years ago and even three years ago when we were there with a winning record thinking playoffs, it was more like we were just happy to be there. Now, we expected to be here. The attitude is a lot different. The confidence is a lot different.''
And as San Diegans jump on the bandwagon, the Chargers are no longer pariahs.
Linebacker Donnie Edwards and his wife went out to dinner recently and got a free dessert.
''I had to pay double for my dessert last year, with our record of 4-12,'' Edwards joked. ''But this year has been awesome.''
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