Lynch forces fumble, safety; Bell scores three TDs

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Drew Brees hustled out of the locker room with
his right arm in a sling.

LaDainian Tomlinson said he played the last 4 games with a
cracked rib that made it tough to breathe every time he got hit.

It was a painful ending to a lost season for the San Diego
Chargers, who were roughed up Saturday in a 23-7 loss to the
playoff-bound Denver Broncos.

Denver safety John Lynch, who's from San Diego, did a lot of the
damage himself, helping knock Brees out of the game with a
dislocated shoulder, then forcing Philip Rivers to fumble in the
end zone, resulting in a safety.

The game, played on a rainy afternoon in front of a crowd that
included thousands of Broncos fans, meant nothing in the standings.

That didn't keep the Broncos (13-3), who had already clinched
the AFC West title and a first-round bye, from playing all-out.

"In my mind, every time you get an opportunity to play in the
NFL, you owe it to yourself, to your team and to the people who pay
to watch the game, to play hard," said Lynch, whose high school
coach was in the stands.

Quarterback Jake Plummer got banged around a bit, but led the
Broncos to a 14-7 halftime lead before making way for Bradlee Van

"It's going to mean nothing if we don't do something in the
playoffs," said Plummer, who was 8-of-14 for 91 yards.

Tatum Bell scored three touchdowns for Denver, but was held to
52 yards on 17 carries. He needed 131 yards for 1,000. He and Mike
Anderson were trying to become the fourth running back tandem in
NFL history to finish with 1,000 yards each.

San Diego (9-7), which won the division last year, lost three of
its last four games. After ending Indianapolis' shot at a perfect
season on Dec. 18, the Chargers were knocked out of the playoff
picture with a listless performance in a 20-7 loss at Kansas City
on Christmas Eve.

Tomlinson did set two club records.

His 6-yard scoring run in the second quarter was his 20th
touchdown of the season, breaking out of a tie with Chuck Muncie,
who scored 19 TDs in 1981. He also eclipsed Hall of Famer Lance
Alworth's team career mark of 9,721 yards from scrimmage, pushing
his total to 9,755.

Tomlinson hadn't scored in the previous four games, matching the
longest drought of his five-year career. He gained 92 yards on 19
carries, his fifth straight game under 100 yards.

He sustained what the team thought were bruised ribs in a win
over Oakland on Dec. 4. X-rays the next day didn't show a break,
but Tomlinson said an MRI last week revealed a cracked rib.

"It's tough when you are playing with ribs that are more than
just bruised. But as football players, it's hard to take us off the
field," he said. "You have to be really pretty much dying out
there to come off the field. That's just the way we are."

Tomlinson said there were some games "that it really affected
me, but finally today was the first day that I didn't have a
problem with it."

Bell had a 19-yard touchdown run late in the game, one play
after Curome Cox intercepted Rivers and returned it 48 yards. The
Broncos got another 15 yards after Rivers ripped off Cox's helmet
at the end of the play, drawing a 15-yard facemask penalty.

Brees hurt his right shoulder late in the second quarter. He
dropped back to pass in his own end zone and was blindsided by the
blitzing Lynch, who hacked at his right arm. Brees fumbled and was
hurt when he went for the ball and had defensive tackle Gerard
Warren land on him. Denver's Sam Brandon recovered at the 1. Bell
scored on the next play to give the Broncos a 14-0 lead.

Brees, who was 8-of-14 for 68 yards, didn't stop to talk to
reporters as he left the locker room.

"Drew Brees and Philip Rivers, they both look the same to me,"
Denver cornerback Champ Bailey said. "Neither of them got it

Rivers had been in for only one play this year, taking a knee to
end a 48-10 win over Buffalo on Nov. 20.

Rivers led the Chargers on a 10-play, 69-yard scoring drive late
in the second quarter, going 3-of-6 for 39 yards. The Chargers
lined up for a field goal attempt on fourth-and-1 from the Denver
6, but when the officials reset the play clock, they went for it
and Tomlinson scored to cut Denver's lead to 14-7.

With less than six minutes to play in the third quarter, Rivers
dropped back into his own end zone, rolled left, was blindsided by
Lynch and fumbled. Right tackle Shane Olivea jumped on the ball to
prevent a Broncos TD.

Rivers looked like a guy who'd played only sparingly in two
seasons. He had some wild overthrows and some good passes. He
finished 12-of-22 for 115 yards.

Asked how he played, Rivers said: "Not very well. It was a
bunch of silly mistakes. I thought I threw it OK, but you can't
hold the ball when you know Lynch and those guys are coming off the

The Chargers will decide in the offseason whether to keep Brees,
Rivers, or both. Brees played this season under an $8 million,
one-year contract as the team's "franchise" player. Rivers has
four years left on his contract.
^Notes:@ San Diego defensive end Luis Castillo and linebacker
Marques Harris sustained knee injuries. ... Lynch had two of the
Broncos' six sacks.


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