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Expect Chargers to clinch homefield advantage in AFC

Discussion in 'Latest Chargers News & Headlines' started by robdog, Dec 8, 2006.

  1. robdog

    robdog Code Monkey Staff Member Administrator

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    Source: SI.com

    By Michael Silver

    <img width="193" height="279" align="left" alt="LaDainian Tomlinson leads the NFL with 1,324 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns." title="LaDainian Tomlinson leads the NFL with 1,324 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns." src="http://i.a.cnn.net/si/2006/writers/michael_silver/12/07/chargers/p1_lt_si.jpg" />Because he is, at this particular slice in time, both the best and most valuable player in the NFL, LaDainian Tomlinson has the unwelcome chore of answering questions about his greatness on a daily basis. Ask LT about his"  team, however, and the sixth-year halfback's eyes light up like a teenage boy's during a stroll down Black's Beach.

    On Wednesday, as we sat outside, across from the Chargers' practice field on a typically gorgeous day in San Diego, I asked Tomlinson to compare his current team, which is tied with Indy atop the AFC standings at 10-2, with the 2004 version, which went 12-4 to win the AFC West after a 4-12 campaign in '03.

    He answered the same way he hits the hole -- without hesitation.

    "This season has been more magical," Tomlinson said. "Two years ago, we were playing good football, and it was great that we were able to turn things around so fast. But this year, just the way we have won games -- coming back to win on the road down 21 and 17 points two weeks in a row -- it's more magical. And because we have a lot of guys who were here two years ago, we're more prepared for this and we have a sense that the magic is going to continue."

    Nobody really knew what to make of the 2004 Chargers, who sputtered to a 1-2 start before quarterback Drew Brees' surprising revival vaulted them to an unlikely division crown. But with Pittsburgh (15-1) and eventual Super Bowl champion New England (14-2) earning first-round byes, San Diego wasn't viewed as a leading contender -- a perception the Chargers validated by losing at home, 20-17 in overtime to the Jets, in the first round of the playoffs.

    There's no guarantee that won't happen again; when your head coach has a career postseason record (5-12) like Marty Schottenheimer's, how can there be? But as Tomlinson hinted, there is a sense inside the Chargers' Murphy Canyon facility that something more momentous is happening this time, a force that won't be so easy to derail.

    That all starts with LT, of course -- and his impact extends far beyond the ostentatious numbers. In San Diego's times of vulnerability, with star pass rusher Shawne Merriman serving a four-game suspension (for violating the league's substance abuse policy) and quarterback Philip Rivers navigating his way through his first NFL season as a starter, it was LT who guided the Chargers home.

    Down three touchdowns in Cincinnati on Nov. 12? San Diego fought back to take the lead, as Tomlinson scored two TDs in five seconds (he had four overall, three in the second half), and rolled to a 49-41 victory. Trailing 24-7 early in the third quarter at Denver after Darrent Williams picked off a Rivers pass and ran 31 yards for a score? LT put up his second, third and fourth touchdowns of the game, including a breathtaking 51-yard burst off a screen pass, and the Chargers won 35-27.

    "The man just took over," said the league's best fullback and proprietor of LT's Escort Service, Lorenzo Neal. "It's like he wills it to happen."

    Tomlinson's next mission, along with breaking Shaun Alexander's single-season record for touchdowns, is to try to quarantine his team to the Pacific time zone until the end of January. With a six-game winning streak, the return of some key players (defensive end Luis Castillo, safety Marlon McCree) from injuries and three of its final four regular season games at Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego has a legitimate chance to earn homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

    Should Indy falter -- and that could happen Sunday against the Jags in Jacksonville -- the Chargers could clinch the No. 1 seed by beating fading division rivals Denver and Kansas City at home, the Seahawks in Seattle and the Cardinals back in San Diego.

    It's a plausible scenario, and one that would be uniformly greeted by people in my profession with abject elation. No cheering is allowed in the press box, and we NFL writers make a point of not rooting for the teams we cover. But where do you think we'd rather spend the bulk of January -- Indy? Baltimore? Foxbrrrrrrro?

    Put it this way: I once covered a Chargers-Dolphins playoff game in December, and the fans outside the stadium were roasting fajitas on an open fire, Jack Daniels nipping at their nose.

    Whether or not San Diego, unlike the '05 Colts or '04 Steelers, could take advantage of homefield advantage remains to be seen. With a coach whose teams tend to play tight in the playoffs and a quarterback who has never been there, the Chargers remain an unsafe bet, despite how well they might be playing right now.

    That said, San Diego has matched up well in the past with Indy, a team that happens to have to league's worst run defense. Last year the Chargers thumped the Pats on the road, and though they lost to the Ravens, 16-13, in early October of this year, that was before Schottenheimer trusted Rivers enough to open up the offense.

    Bottom line: I'm still picking the Patriots, as long as Tom Brady is in the huddle. But right now San Diego looks like the strongest team, and as I look out my hotel window at the morning sun shimmering off Mission Bay, you will not catch me complaining.

    If nothing else, the Chargers have a swagger they lacked in '04. "Back then we were winning, and we wanted to be good, and we believed we were good -- but we were still kind of hoping," Neal said. "And the big difference this year is that our defense is stronger."

    Echoed veteran long-snapper Dave Binn: "I think two years ago we were happy to get to the playoffs. It was like, 'If we happen to get to the Super Bowl, great.' But I don't know if everybody fully believed it. This year, we know we can beat any team we play. We expect to win every game."

    Sure they do. Wouldn't you if your franchise player was doing things that someday we'll relate to our grandkids?

    "I would like Seattle to be our last trip of the year, besides the Super Bowl," Tomlinson said. "That would be great."

    Amen, brother. Oops ... no cheering in the press box.
     

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