Just asking the mistake-prone visitors if they were flat in the wake of their huge victory at Indianapolis did the trick.
"We weren't," coach Marty Schottenheimer said in a level voice. "We were outplayed."
Indeed. The Chiefs ran their December home winning streak to 18 and kept their faint playoff hopes alive with a dominating victory a week after they lost at the New York Giants in one of their poorest games of the year.
Johnson kept up his amazing run with his eighth straight 100-yard rushing game, constantly digging his heels into the wet, slippery turf for extra yardage, dragging tacklers with him.
The third-year pro had 131 tough yards and two touchdowns against a defense that came in as No. 1 in the league against the run and had not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 16 straight games.
He scored on a 4-yard dash and an eye-popping, tackle-busting 28-yard catch-and-run down the sideline. Since he became the starter Nov. 1 after Priest Holmes went on injured reserve, Johnson has a league-leading 1,150 yards on the ground.
But he seemed most pleased with improved skills in an area that's drawn criticism of late.
"I was definitely on a mission today as far as pass-blocking," he said. "I think I did pretty well as far as blocking."
While eliminating the Chargers (9-6), the Chiefs (9-6) clinched the AFC West title for Denver.
For the Chiefs to make the postseason, three things have to happen:
- They must beat Cincinnati next Sunday.
- Denver has to beat the Chargers.
- On Saturday, the underdog Detroit Lions will have to upset the Steelers at Pittsburgh.
"Detroit needs to go sign Barry Sanders for just one more week," Chiefs left tackle Willie Roaf said. "It's going to be tough."
Anything short of the postseason is bound to be a big letdown for a team that squandered its chances with road losses to Dallas and the Giants the previous two weeks.
"This is my ninth year here and I've been to the playoffs only twice and we've lost both times," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "Definitely, it would be a huge disappointment if we don't make the playoffs this year."
San Diego was flagged for seven penalties for 58 yards and had two turnovers and hardly resembled the tough-minded outfit that ruined the Colts' unbeaten season.
"They came out hard," rookie linebacker Shawne Merriman said. "They came out fighting for every inch. They were very tough and they game-planned us very well."
LaDainian Tomlinson, the other Pro Bowl running back in this game, had 49 yards on 15 carries.
"We stopped the run and made them a one-dimensional team," said cornerback Patrick Surtain, whose interception stopped the Chargers' deepest threat in the second half.
"Once you do that, you could get them out of rhythm by switching your coverages up. Any time you can hold a running back like LaDainian to 50 yards, that's something special."
The Chiefs' first scoring drive covered 43 yards and Johnson was responsible for every inch, getting 5 yards on a pass and picking up 38 on four carries, capping it with a 4-yard TD run.
On the first play of the second quarter, Green threw a perfect pass to Samie Parker as the second-year wide receiver ran into the end zone, putting the Chiefs up 14-7.
Then Johnson made his tackle-busting tightrope walk down the sideline. Taking Green's pass in the flat, he broke tackles by Jamar Fletcher and Drayton Florence, each time stepping carefully to stay in bounds.
"That's one of the best plays I've seen a running back make in my career," Roaf said.
The call was reviewed to see if Johnson broke the plane of the goal line with the ball. But the ruling on the field was upheld, making it 20-7 with 1:45 left in the half after the Chiefs botched the extra point.
- The Chargers were trying for their first back-to-back playoff appearances in a decade.
- Johnson has 17 touchdowns rushing this season, the third-highest total in KC history. It was Johnson's 12th career game with two or more TDs. Ironically, it was a big tackle by Merriman in their first meeting this year that gave Johnson his chance. The hit put starter Holmes on injured reserve.