LaDainian Tomlinson has accomplished so much in seven seasons it seems inevitable he'll end up in Canton.
He owns a league MVP trophy, a rushing title and some of the most impressive NFL records anyone could set. His position on the all-time rushing and touchdown lists get loftier practically every time he suits up.
He helped turn the Chargers from sad-sacks to contenders, his tenure beginning the year after Ryan Leaf's reign of error ended.
Yet his resume continues to sport a big bagel. As good as he is from September through December, Tomlinson is winless when it really counts, in January. The Chargers have been in only two playoff games during L.T.'s career, losing both.
"But at least I've been," Tomlinson said with a laugh.
He'll be in the playoffs for a third time now that the Chargers have won the AFC West with two games to play. Those last two games, starting Monday night at home against division rival Denver (6-8), are important because the Chargers want to hold onto the AFC's No. 3 seed. The Bolts (9-5) are looking to stay hot, having won four straight and eight of 10 since their shocking 1-3 start.
The No. 3 seed, of course, means delaying a date at New England by a week. Remember, though, that the Chargers are a playoff-challenged bunch. They're 0-4 in the postseason dating to the Super Bowl whuppin' they took from San Francisco following the 1994 season. And it's hard to overlook last year's pratfall against the Patriots.
"It has to come one day, and usually, what happens is, when you do get a win, there's a string of them," Tomlinson said. "Hopefully that's the case this year."
If the Chargers are going to make the deep playoff run they've been talking about for a few seasons now, it would go through Indianapolis, provided the Chargers end up with the No. 3 seed - and win their opening game. If the Chargers can beat the defending Super Bowl champs a second time, their road to the Super Bowl would then go through New England, as long as the Patriots aren't upset in their opener.
Tomlinson thinks the Chargers would match up well against any team in the playoffs.
"We'd like to say we're definitely a contender," said Tomlinson, who has three straight 100-yard games and is pushing Pittsburgh's Willie Parker for the rushing title. "We've got to prove it. When you get to the playoffs, it's totally different. You've got more pressure on you and also less room for error, and so you've really got to take advantage of your opportunities. When we get there, that's one thing we're going to talk about."
The No. 3 seed would let the Chargers avoid Jacksonville in their playoff opener. San Diego's last loss was 24-17 at Jacksonville on Nov. 18. The enduring image from that day was Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman getting knocked on his rear end by 5-foot-7 running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
The Chargers were overrun by Tom Brady and Randy Moss in a 38-14 loss at New England on Sept. 16. The Bolts beat the Colts 23-21 at Qualcomm Stadium on Nov. 11, thanks to Peyton Manning's career-high six interceptions and several Indy starters sitting out with injuries. Even coach Norv Turner admitted the Chargers might have stolen that one.
As it stands now, the Chargers could host the Cleveland Browns in the wild-card round.
Quarterback Philip Rivers knows not to look too far ahead. He thinks the Chargers can beat any team in the playoffs, but knows any team can beat the Chargers.
"Hey, I think when the playoffs roll around, if we can continue to get better these last two weeks like we have the previous four, we'll be as primed and prepared and been through as much as any team in the league," Rivers said.
Denver safety John Lynch thinks his hometown Chargers can be a threat in the playoffs.
"I think they've steadily improved as this year's gone on," Lynch said. "You want to be peaking at the right time of the year, and I think this is a team that's kind of on the upward ascension right now. They've got to be feeling good about themselves."
The Chargers followed their 1-3 start with a 41-3 win at Denver, the first of three straight victories.
"I think everyone knew the talent was there with these guys, and that led to the expectations they had coming into this year, and you saw the frustrations when they were struggling," Lynch said.
Having spent time in San Diego in the offseason, Lynch heard talk about how the Chargers were going to run the same schemes. Having been through coaching changes, he knew it would take time.
"To say it would be a seamless transition, I didn't believe that," Lynch said. "I credit them because they started off slow, but they continued to believe in themselves and now they're starting to play really good football."
Lynch said it's apparent the Chargers are confident. "You've seen them blow out a lot of teams," he added. "Not just beat them, but blow them out."
A day after the Bolts routed Detroit 51-14, Tomlinson borrowed a line from broadcaster Keith Jackson.
"If we can be hot going into the playoffs, Whoa, Nellie! Whoa, Nellie!" he said.
Tomlinson would love more than anything to be successful in the postseason.
"Definitely, because this is what it's all about. The regular season is just to prepare you for the playoffs, if you're good enough to be there. Then the playoffs, you've got to be playing your best football. I think we are right now, and we need to continue to play our best football.
"It's time for this team to make that next step, winning playoff games, taking those big-game challenges and meeting those head-on and winning those games."
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