In a season all but drained of hope, they have suddenly become the San Diego Re-Chargers.
Two weeks ago, the underachieving AFC West team was sputtering at 4-8, without any apparent possibility of getting a postseason berth. But a pair of division wins has energized the Chargers by giving them a long-shot playoff bid in time for Sunday's clash with the Bucs.
The scenario is simple: San Diego needs to beat the Bucs, and the Broncos, who lead the mediocre AFC West at 8-6, have to lose at home Sunday to the Bills (6-8). If that happens, the Chargers host Denver on Dec. 28 for the West title and a chance at redemption in a season filled with frustration and cliff-hanger losses.
"There's only one team we can control, and that's us," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "Since we've dug ourselves a hole, every week's been a playoff game for us. I mean, you lose, and you're out. But obviously (Tampa Bay) has a lot at stake as well. This is just a playoff game, and we're expecting that type of atmosphere."
Rivers is right about the Bucs. With consecutive losses to NFC South rivals Carolina and Atlanta, they're in the wild-card logjam at 9-5. A loss to the Chargers would leave their playoff fate in the hands of others.
One thing does appear clear. The Chargers are the best 6-8 team in the league this year — or any other in recent memory. They are led by Rivers, who has thrown for 3,515 yards and 28 touchdowns, completing 64.6 percent of his passes for an NFL-best quarterback rating of 101.4.
Running back LaDainian Tomlinson is having an off year but still has 924 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, and at 29 remains a major threat. He's backed by equally dangerous Darren Sproles, an elusive punt and kick returner who averages 4.7 yards on 45 carries.
The receiving corps features the impressive tandem of Antonio Gates (53 catches for 612 yards and six TDs) and Vincent Jackson (50 catches for 940 yards and seven TDs). The Chargers rank 14th in total offense (just behind Tampa Bay) and 25th defensively (the Bucs are ninth).
"They're not 6-8," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "I've got a lot of friends that left messages … and said, 'Watch out for these guys.' They're talented. … They're a star-studded football team. They've lost some heartbreaking games, controversial games."
The tone for the season was set in Week 1, when Carolina pulled out a 26-24 victory on Jake Delhomme's 14-yard touchdown pass as time expired. A week later, the Chargers lost 39-38 in Denver after a botched fumble ruling in the final minute allowed the Broncos to retain possession and take the lead.
Other tight losses: 37-32 at New Orleans, 11-10 at Pittsburgh, 23-20 to Indianapolis and 22-16 to Atlanta.
"We've lost so many close games, it can make you try to diagnose and find a bigger problem than there really is," Rivers said. "Whereas a play here or there goes the other direction in some of these games and we win them, we're probably not digging in search of so much.
"I know one thing. The effort's there. The preparation is there. And we've just had some key errors in some key situations."
Given up for dead two weeks ago, San Diego trounced Oakland 34-7. Sunday, the Chargers staged a stunning 22-21 comeback in Kansas City, scoring with 1:19 remaining on a Rivers pass, recovering the onside kick and scoring on another Rivers pass with 40 seconds left.
Coach Norv Turner says his offense has struggled to run the ball as well as it has in the past, and his defense has had problems on third down and against the pass (ranked 31st in league).
"Every week is a new challenge, and this will be a real challenge for us," he said.
Still, despite the odds, the Chargers continue to fight.
"When you're 4-8, it can be easy to shut it down," Rivers said. "But we've kept playing. And we've given ourselves a chance to have a chance Sunday."