SAN DIEGO -- John Lynch met LaDainian Tomlinson head-on early in the first quarter, a collision of two star players following a simple 2-yard run.
Normally they'd get up and get ready for the next play. Not this time. Tomlinson's helmet came off and Lynch took it with both hands and threw it about 10 yards, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and the wrath of the crowd.
"I thought it was going to be that kind of a night, where even the good guys turn to bad guys," Tomlinson said.
It turned out to be a walkover for the Chargers, who beat the Denver Broncos 23-3 on Monday night, with Tomlinson closing in on his second straight NFL rushing title and San Diego getting closer to clinching the No. 3 playoff seed.
Tomlinson had a 17-yard scoring run among his 107 yards before sitting out the bulk of the second half, already having scampered into the rushing lead with 1,418 yards. His route to another title was made easier when Pittsburgh's Willie Parker (1,316) broke his right lower leg on Thursday night, finishing his season.
L.T.'s closest pursuer is Minnesota rookie Adrian Peterson, who has 1,305 yards after being held to just 27 yards on nine carries in a loss to Washington on Sunday night. Peterson set the NFL single-game record of 296 yards against San Diego on Nov. 4.
A few plays after their encounter, Lynch apologized to L.T. and the two shook hands.
"It is something I've never done in my career. I am embarrassed by it," said Lynch, a 15-year veteran safety who grew up in San Diego and won the Super Bowl on this field with Tampa Bay five years ago. "There are no excuses on that. I just lost my head for a second. I've always played hard. That's what I was doing there, but I went too far and I apologize for everything."
The helmet toss went farther than most of Denver's offensive plays as the Broncos gained only 225 yards.
"Lynch is a competitor," Tomlinson said. "He's never been a player who would do something like that. But he told me that he lost his head and I accepted his apology."
The Chargers (10-5) won their fifth straight game and for the ninth time in 11 games. They need simply to win at Oakland on Sunday to secure the AFC's No. 3 playoff seed.
Tomlinson, the 2006 NFL MVP, had only four of his 19 carries in the second half.
He was on the sideline for San Diego's final drive of the first half, then carried four times during an 11-play, 84-yard drive capped by a 14-yard TD pass from Philip Rivers to Chris Chambers.
Tomlinson felt his hamstring grab following a 6-yard run, his final carry of the night, just as it did a week earlier in a blowout against Detroit. He checked by trainer James Collins, and coach Norv Turner decided he'd carried enough.
"I was going to go back in because it was OK," Tomlinson said. "I just needed to play to stretch it out. Norv told me to come back and that I was done."
Tomlinson scored late in the first quarter for a 10-0 lead. This is his fourth straight season with 15 rushing touchdowns. He set NFL records last year with 31 touchdowns, 28 of them rushing, and led the league with 1,815 yards.
Tomlinson said getting the rushing title "would mean a lot, especially with the adversity we've had this season. I know the offensive line wants it and I definitely want it. So, we'll go after it next week."
The Chargers held the Broncos (6-9) without a touchdown in the season series. The Bolts beat the Broncos 41-3 at Denver on Oct. 7 to end a three-game losing streak.
It was a rough night for Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler, who was born in Santa Claus, Ind.
Cutler was sacked four times, lost a fumble and threw two interceptions.
"Hey, we had to be the Grinch," said safety Clinton Hart, who had an interception and a sack. "We had to take it from him."
Cutler fumbled after getting hit by Luis Castillo deep in Chargers territory on the opening drive. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Shawne Merriman recovered. Castillo returned after a six-game layoff following ankle surgery.
"We got to him early, guys were rattling him a little bit," Hart said. "You could see toward the third quarter he was kind of out of it, really just throwing the ball without really recognizing formations and that kind of thing."
San Diego's Nate Kaeding kicked field goals of 40, 23 and 29 yards. Denver's Jason Elam kicked a 23-yarder.
If the Chargers get the No. 3 playoff seed, that would mean a trip to Indianapolis rather than New England for the divisional round -- providing, of course, they win their wild-card game. San Diego is on a four-game postseason losing streak.
Notes: Turner said Kaeding has a bruised lower left leg but is OK to continue kicking. That's Kaeding plant leg. ... Chargers LB Marques Harris will have surgery for a broken hand but isn't expected to miss any time. ... Broncos TE Daniel Graham reinjured his left ankle and had to leave the game for the second straight week.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.