DENVER, DEC. 27 -- For five weeks in the middle of the season, the San Diego Chargers were tied for the best record in the National Football League. The league's surprise team, the Chargers won seven straight games and thought they might stay at home in comfy Southern California for the playoffs, and perhaps even have home-field advantage for the Super Bowl in Jack Murphy Stadium.

But their six-week catastrophe ended today, many degrees, many inches of snow and many miles from home. They gave up a 71-yard punt return in the opening minutes, then shivered through a 20-inch blizzard as Denver won, 24-0, in Mile High Stadium.

The victory gave the defending AFC champions a conference-best 10-4-1 record and playoff home-field advantage. The Broncos had won the AFC West earlier in the day when Seattle lost at Kansas City. But Denver wasn't about to back into the playoffs and give up home-field advantage by losing.

"We didn't want anyone saying we backed in, and nobody can say it," Denver linebacker Ricky Hunley said. "We took it."

That might be an understatement. Nothing about the game was pretty. But the Broncos, with one touchdown from the special teams and another from the defense, were resourceful enough to shut out San Diego (8-7).

John Elway, who has pulled his teammates along for about a half-dozen victories this season, completed only seven of 20 passes for 98 yards -- his worst statistical performance of the season. But, as he said: "In these kinds of weather conditions, you don't worry about statistics. You just try to get through."

The Broncos began to break through only two minutes into the game when K.C. Clark returned a punt 71 yards for a 7-0 lead. Denver's only offensive touchdown, which came late in the quarter, came on a 38-yard drive that ended in Sammy Winder's one-yard plunge.

Rich Karlis, Denver's barefoot kicker, took his right foot out of his moon boot long enough for kickoffs and a 26-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to make it 17-0. And Hunley's 52-yard interception return finished the scoring.

The teams agreed that the weather didn't give the Broncos an advantage. But they looked a lot more comfortable rolling around the field in the snow than the Chargers. Elway said "attitude is the most important thing" when playing in such weather.

"I don't think the weather hurt us that much," Chargers linebacker Billy Ray Smith said. "It's not like their coach, Dan Reeves, has them rolling around in the stuff after practice every day." And San Diego defensive end Les Miller said: "It's all mind over matter; if you don't mind it don't matter."

Of course, the weather mattered. Four quarterbacks had eight interceptions (Dan Fouts wasn't one of them because he missed the game with an injury) and there were four fumbles (one resulted in a turnover). Snow removers had to clear the yard lines continually for the players to know where they were on the field.

By 7 Saturday night, four inches of snow had fallen. Gary Jones, the stadium's operations manager, has been overseeing the grounds for 20 years, but said this afternoon he had never experienced anything remotely close to this.

After getting permission to extend the size of the grounds crew from 10 to 135, he worked all night, plowing snow from the tarp that covered the grass.

By 7 a.m., he and his staff realized they had been working for nothing when 14 inches had piled up. By gametime, he looked out of the press box window and estimated that 18 inches had fallen, with another four to six expected to fall before the game ended.

The Broncos management did not announce the attendance, but no more than 10,000 were on hand. By not announcing an attendance -- the club said it simply was unable to count -- it may have avoided a dubious record of the most no-shows (around 65,000) in NFL history.

Many of those who did come had to shovel snow. Traffic around Mile High, normally a standstill before a home game, was virtually nonexistent and ticket holders were trying to dump their $30 seats for $5 to $7.

Hunley said: "Heck, I looked up there in the fourth quarter and saw all those crazies still watching the game and I figured it must not be all that bad. Those people had to just sit still for three hours. They couldn't move around or jump up and down to keep warm like we did."

Denver defensive lineman Greg Kragen thought ahead a bit to a possibility of January games in Denver and said: "I don't know about this for home-field advantage. It looked like a USFL game out there today."

The Broncos, quite understandably, were in a festive mood afterward. "We're a better team than we were last year and we know it," Elway said.

The fact that the Denver airport remained closed and the Chargers were scheduled to bunk out, snowbound, had to make it hurt even more for them.

San Diego 0 0 0 0 0 Denver 14 0 0 10 24 First Quarter

D -- Clark 71 punt return (Karlis kick), 1:50

D -- Winder 1 run (Karlis kick), 13:56 Fourth Quarter

D -- FG Karlis 26, 3:50

D -- Hunley 52 interception return (Karlis kick), 5:00

A -- 25,000 (est)

Chargers Broncos First downs 7 15 Rushes-yards 21-43 40-129 Passing yards 108 86 Return yards 74 261 Passing 16-29-5 7-24-3 Sacked-yards lost 2-23 2-12 Punts-average 8-45 4-44 Fumbles-lost 3-0 1-1 Penalties-yards 4-38 2-10 Time of possession 25:26

RUSHING -- San Diego: Spencer 11-25, Adams 6-18, Redden 1-3, Herrmann 2-0, James 1-(minus 3). Denver: Winde

PASSING -- San Diego: Herrmann 13-23-4, 123 yards, Vlasic 3-6-1, 8. Denver: Elway 7-20-1, 98, Kubiak 0-4-2,

RECEIVING -- San Diego: Winslow 6-44, Holland 3-64, Anderson 3-7, Redden 2-13, Spencer 1-2, Bernstine 1-1.

MISSED FIELD GOALS -- San Diego: Abbott 26. Denver: Karlis 35.