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Chargers and Bengals emerging as legit threats in AFC


SAN DIEGO -- Discovery is an amazing thing.

When Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson arrived at Qualcomm Stadium about 2½ hours before his team kicked off (and kicked butt) against the Philadelphia Eagles, he found a shoebox-sized purple bag at his locker. A note to "open immediately" was stuck on the side. A box was inside; certainly a good-luck trinket.

Inside the box wasn't the necklace or bracelet he expected. It was a pregnancy test. It read positive.

His wife, LaTorsha, had just presented him with two surprises. This hit his heart hard. Tomlinson and his wife lost a child when she was pregnant in 2005 and they didn't know if they'd ever be able to get to the point again. So when she let him in on the secret she hid since last Tuesday, L.T. cried.

And then he called her.

"I just said, 'You're amazing. You're amazing,'" he repeated after his best game of the season.

That spurred something within Tomlinson that had been missing as the Chargers and L.T. struggled to live up to preseason expectations. He eventually went on the field and ran against one of the NFL's better defenses like he hadn't run all season. He finished with two touchdowns and 96 yards on a season-high 24 carries. The Chargers won their fourth straight game to improve to 6-3.

Denis Poroy / Associated Press
The Chargers have been notoriously slow starters under Norv Turner. They began this season losing three of their first five before winning four straight.
Chargers under Norv Turner
Year
Start
Finish
Playoffs
2007
1-3
11-5*
2008
3-5
8-8*
* Won AFC West division title

It was a good day.

Not once during his postgame media session did he mention or did anyone bring to his attention that San Diego also moved into a first-place tie in the AFC West with reeling Denver.

It was a really good day.

"You know the 'real deal,' and what you can still do and you put it out on the field and when it shows, then people will say 'he's right,'" Tomlinson said. "I'm still effective and I think that's all that counts."

In the stretch of hours that Tomlinson learned his family would be growing, the Chargers also rediscovered new life. They've rallied from a 2-3 start that created doubt to a point where they, along with Cincinnati, have sent tremors through the AFC with stampede-like resonance. They've been overlooked amid the glow cast by New England, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, but the scales of respect are starting to level.

In back-to-back weeks, the Chargers have defeated the tough guys of the NFC East (the Giants and Eagles) to extend a run that started with wins over division doormats Kansas City and Oakland. They've done it with muscle, ingenuity and backbone that seem to always be in question because of previous bouts with inconsistency.

Though it won't be a crowning blow, it would be a major punch to the gut if San Diego could defeat the Broncos in Denver next weekend to take sole possession of the AFC West lead. It took until the final month of the 2008 season for San Diego to get on track -- and for Denver to fade by losing its final three games (the same as its current losing streak) -- to play itself into the postseason.

It has the opportunity for an advanced start on that process.

"We came out the first month of the season and we were a beat-up football team," Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "We played very good football teams and continued to get beat up. I thought the bye helped us. I thought we got healthy. We played well for a lot of the game against Denver. We just weren't able to close it off. Since then, we have continued to get healthy and our better players are getting healthy."

While there is still much to be gained and lost as the season plays out, the Chargers and Bengals, leaders of divisions not ruled by Indianapolis and New England, have let it be known that they aren't going to go away. Still, they will be doubted every week until January, when it's legitimized with a playoff berth.

The AFC North-leading Bengals (7-2) have swept the Ravens and the Steelers, the two teams that have pretty much owned the division. That's John Henry flattening two mountains while pitching a shutout over the mighty machines.

Cincinnati has done it the same way San Diego has; methodically locking in on the next opponent and not being consumed by any circumstance. The Bengals have been physical when they've had to be and definitely more poised. What doesn't guarantee Cincinnati anything right now is a schedule that will show if its focus is as precise as players say it is.

Up next: Oakland, Cleveland and Detroit. That should get the Bengals to 10 wins before the end of the month. Those also are banana peels ripe for Cincinnati to step on and fall. After those games, the Bengals face Minnesota and San Diego before wrapping up the regular season with Kansas City and the New York Jets. If Cincinnati wants to win the division, it needs to win the games it should and maybe one it shouldn't.

The Steelers, who look to pose the only threat to Cincy to win the AFC North, have the lightest strength of schedule in the league the rest of the way. As meaningful as the sweep of the Steelers was in the regular season, the Bengals don't want the playoffs going through Pittsburgh.

As for the Chargers, the current run won't mean much if they wither. Quarterback Philip Rivers is playing at a high level. He showed against Philly that he can spread the ball around and that the Chargers can score in a variety of ways. If Tomlinson continues to produce like he did Sunday and Antonio Gates remains the best tight end playing, all should go well. The defense is gaining its legs -- literally -- and has been highly effective in crunch time while not allowing touchdowns in the red zone.

San Diego, as well as its playing, must hope it hasn't peaked. Its road through the rest of the schedule has some obstacles. After the Broncos, there's Kansas City, Cleveland, then Dallas, Cincy, Tennessee and Washington. Dallas and Cincinnati are going to be jockeying for playoff position, and Tennessee's playing like it should have been all season.

"We didn't know it would happen like this or this fast (that) we would be sitting here with the same record (as Denver), but we believed we could get ourselves back in it," Rivers said. "There's a lot of football left still and there is no telling where things can go. We're going to keep the focus, though, and make sure it goes in the right direction."

With all the talk that took place after the game about football, there were two realities that brought life back into clear view.

Eagles running back Brian Westbrook suffered a second concussion -- or revisited the one he sustained less than a month ago when he was hit in the head and lost consciousness against Washington. His short-term future is clearly on hold and there might be reason for him not to play again this season. The brutality of the sport has struck twice in a minute vacuum of real time to one of the most valiant running backs we've gotten to experience in recent history.

On NFL Replay
NFL Replay will re-air the San Diego Chargers' 31-23 win over the Philadelphia  Eagles on Wednesday, Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. ET.

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If he were to never play again, his legacy will remain intact, as, hopefully will his faculties.

Then there's Tomlinson. He's one of the good guys, which is why he is so beloved by so many, especially in San Diego. Besides everything else that happened Sunday, he also moved into 12th place on the NFL's all-time rushing list moving past Thurman Thomas and Franco Harris. He also moved into sole possession of third place on the all-time touchdown list (146).

He said he reflects on his accomplishments and his career in quiet times. He also admitted he was in awe to be mentioned in such elite company. L.T. then shared his personal story of his wife's pregnancy with the world, unexpectedly, caught up in the emotion of it all.

As he finished his media obligations, he walked alone, through the tunnel and back onto the field to chants of "L.T., L.T.," by maybe a dozen or so stragglers. The coolest part about it all was seeing him fade into the twilight holding that purple bag that started his day off so well.

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