SAN DIEGO — Take away all those special teams blunders and turnovers, and this is how the San Diego Chargers were supposed to look all along.
Philip Rivers tied his career high with four touchdown passes and the Chargers beat the Denver Broncos 35-14 on Monday night for their third straight victory.
“This was the most complete game we’ve played in all three phases,” Rivers said. “We are in a lot of ways in playoff football already. You almost can’t afford a step back at this point.”
While Rivers did it on a season-low 233 yards, San Diego’s defense, led by linebacker Shaun Phillips, settled in and harassed Denver’s Kyle Orton after he led an easy opening scoring drive.
Patrick Crayton scored on a 40-yard catch-and-run late in the second quarter, hurting his left wrist as he fell into the end zone, and speedy little Darren Sproles had a 57-yard catch-and-run early in the third.
The four-time defending AFC West champion Chargers (5-5) even pulled off a fake punt, a remarkable accomplishment considering the special teams gaffes that contributed to a 2-5 start. Mike Scifres — who’s had five punts blocked this year — waited for fullback Mike Tolbert to get open, then hit him with a 29-yard pass that set up Rivers’ tying 6-yard scoring pass to Malcom Floyd in the first quarter.
The Chargers, coming off their bye, pulled into a second-place tie with Oakland, one game behind Kansas City. Denver fell to 3-7.
“This is exactly what we set out to do when we were 2-5,” said cornerback Antoine Cason, who intercepted Orton in the second quarter. “We wanted to get back in the division race to set us up for these games against division teams, and now our fate is in our own hands.”
Said Phillips: “They were disrespectful before the game. They kind of broke it down and had some chants, but we didn’t buy into it. We were the better team after that first drive.”
Rivers, who never flinches even if his favorite receivers aren’t playing, completed 15 of 24 passes, including three to Crayton for 105 yards. Tolbert gained 111 yards on 24 carries.
Rivers leads the NFL with 3,177 yards passing.
Rivers also threw four touchdown passes in the Chargers’ last game, a 29-23 victory at Houston on Nov. 7.
The Chargers had no trouble despite playing without star tight end Antonio Gates, who missed his second straight game with a torn plantar fascia in his right foot, and rookie running back Ryan Mathews, still bothered by a high ankle sprain.
Although it wasn’t quite the air show that had been expected between Rivers and Orton — the NFL’s top two passers coming in — Rivers and his receivers came up big.
Late in the second quarter, Crayton caught a short screen pass, broke a tackle by Brian Dawkins and raced toward the end zone. He was being tackled as he ran into the end zone and fell awkwardly on his left wrist even as he gave the Chargers a 21-7 lead. He was taken to the locker room and was on the sideline in street clothes in the fourth quarter, his left arm in a sling.
Earlier, Crayton caught a deep pass from Rivers and stiff-armed safety Renaldo Hill to gain extra yards, finishing with a 49-yard gain to the Denver 6. Tolbert scored on a 1-yard run two plays later for a 14-7 lead.
Sproles’ big touchdown catch capped the opening drive of the second half and extended San Diego’s lead to 28-7. He cut inside, caught Rivers’ short pass and outraced the Broncos to the end zone.
Rivers’ final scoring pass was a 3-yarder to fullback Jacob Hester early in the fourth.
Orton was coming off a four-touchdown performance in a 49-29 dismantling of Kansas City. The Chargers held him to 217 yards on 24-of-38 passing and sacked him five times.
Phillips had two sacks in the second quarter, including one when he chased down Orton as he tried to complete a flea-flicker.
Orton moved the Broncos 69 yards in six plays to open the game, with Knowshon Moreno scoring on a 4-yard run. Orton was 3 for 3 for 47 yards on the drive.
“We didn’t make any adjustments, really. We just stuck to our game plan, and after that first drive, it worked,” Phillips said.
Orton threw a 13-yard TD pass to Brandon Lloyd in the fourth quarter.