SAN DIEGO (AP) — It took the San Diego Chargers 10 games to play the way they were supposed to all along.
Finally escaping those special teams blunders and turnovers that dogged them in September and October, the Chargers beat the Denver Broncos 35-14 on Monday night as Philip Rivers tied his career high with four touchdown passes to four different receivers.
“This was the most complete game we’ve played in all three phases,” Rivers said after San Diego’s third straight victory. “We are in a lot of ways in playoff football already. You almost can’t afford a step back at this point.”
While Rivers threw for a season-low 233 yards, San Diego’s defense, led by linebacker Shaun Phillips, settled in and harassed Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton after he led an easy opening scoring drive. Denver was held to 235 yards and converted only one of 12 third downs.
“They outplayed us and made some adjustments that certainly had an effect on the game,” Broncos coach Josh McDaniels said. “Once they got control of the game, we don’t want to play the game the way we ended up playing it.”
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.
“We’re coming together as a team,” Chargers coach Norv Turner said. “We can continue to get better but I think we’re playing our best football.”
The four-time defending AFC West champion Chargers (5-5) even pulled off a fake punt, a remarkable accomplishment considering all the special teams gaffes that contributed to a 2-5 start, the worst in Turner’s four seasons as San Diego’s coach. Mike Scifres — who’s had five punts blocked this year — waited for fullback Mike Tolbert to get open, then hit him with a 28-yard pass that set up Rivers’ tying 6-yard scoring pass to Malcom Floyd in the first quarter.
“I didn’t have a second read, so I was glad Mike got open,” Scifres said.
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 a pass by 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.”
Phillips said the Broncos 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,” he said.
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.
“Philip is playing at such a high level,” Turner said.
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.
“We haven’t peaked,” said Rivers, who leads the NFL with 3,177 yards passing and has a chance to break Dan Marino’s single-season record of 5,084 set in 1984. “I don’t think we’re playing at 100 percent, but we’re playing pretty good.”
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 goal line. 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. Turner said he hopes it’s just a sprain.
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.
“They kept bringing pressure and we couldn’t hold them off,” Orton said. “It’s tough to do much when that happens.”
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.
Orton threw a 13-yard TD pass to Brandon Lloyd in the fourth quarter.
NOTES: Denver WR Demaryius Thomas left with a sprained ankle and LB D.J. Williams had a concussion. … San Diego RG Louis Vasquez left with a stinger and Floyd left in the second half after his hamstring tightened up.