SAN DIEGO -- The closest LaDainian Tomlinson has come to a playoff victory is in his daydreams.
He's imagined it, all right, but it hasn't materialized during his brilliant seven-year career.
"I always believe you have to envision it before it happens," Tomlinson said. "You have to picture it happen and then it happens. I have a vision of it happening."
It didn't happen after the 2004 season, when the Chargers looked tight in their first playoff game in nine years and lost to the New York Jets. Coach Marty Schottenheimer went into one of his conservative modes and sent Tomlinson crashing into the line three times to set up a 40-yard field goal attempt in overtime that rookie Nate Kaeding pushed wide right on a wet field. The Jets went on to win 20-17.
It definitely didn't happen a year ago, when the Chargers had the NFL's best record and then self-destructed in a stunning sequence of blunders not seen around here since Ryan Leaf was throwing interceptions and tantrums. The New England Patriots won 24-21 and celebrated on the Chargers' logo at midfield, enraging Tomlinson.
San Diego has lost three straight playoff games at home since, starting with a 1995 wild-card game against Indianapolis.
Tomlinson has vaulted to 18th on the career rushing list with 10,650 yards and seventh on the all-time touchdowns list with 129. He was last year's NFL MVP and has won two straight rushing titles.
He'd love to add a playoff win to the list.
"I think it would feel like almost a normal game, but meaning that you get another week to play on," Tomlinson said. "You're not going to go home. You get another week to continue to play for the championship; nothing more, nothing less. You don't want to get to a point where you say, 'We won a playoff game' and you breath a sigh of relief, but also you've got to understand that it continues. It intensifies everything that you're playing for. We've got to approach it that way."
Although the Chargers are playing well now, they weren't in November. After a 24-17 loss at Jacksonville, Tomlinson, the franchise's most brutally honest employee, called a meeting for players only.
Even then, 10 games into the season, coach Norv Turner and his staff weren't exactly meshing with the players. Turner's playcalling was predictable and unimaginative, and the defense seemed to have lost its aggressiveness.
While not openly critical, Tomlinson's body language during the span of several weeks strongly suggested that he wasn't happy with what was going on.
"I just wanted to say something to the guys, that's all," Tomlinson said about the meeting. "I just basically told them we had six games left and we're still in first place, so just kind of focus in and play like we know how we can play. Forget about what has happened up until that point. Whatever's called, play it. We play football."
His teammates paid attention.
"He said, 'Hey, either we're going to win or we're going to lose, and you're the one who's going to decide,"' center Nick Hardwick said. "It was nice to hear the man speak. He doesn't always say a lot, but when he does, it just carries a lot of weight."
Outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, who talks a lot and sometimes has to backtrack, said the meeting was definitely needed.
"There comes a point in time where you have to realize that it's now or never," Merriman said. "That's one of those meetings that possibly even changed a lot of things for us, period. Not because of the timing, but because of some of the things he said."
This will be the rematch of a tough, nasty game, which San Diego won 23-17 in overtime on Dec. 9 at Nashville.
The Titans dominated much of the game and had a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter. Three Chargers stars hobbled off the field with injuries. Merriman (sprained knee) and fullback Lorenzo Neal (broken left leg) didn't return. Merriman claimed he was injured on a cheap-shot play meant as retaliation for running into Titans quarterback Vince Young after he handed off.
Tomlinson won it with 16-yard run in overtime, capping a 146-yard day.
It was such a contentious game that even Tomlinson was whistled for a personal foul for unnecessary roughness. Four players were fined a total of $32,500 by the NFL.
"That's our game. We're physical," Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck said. "We get to the ball. I think LaDainian said it best. That was just a football game. It just happened to be one of those physical-type games. Both teams were jockeying for playoff position. Lo and behold, they came out on top."
"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," Tomlinson said.
"We know what we're up against. It's not going to come easy."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press