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L.T.: Rolling Chargers go into playoffs with 'newfound respect'

SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego Chargers won 10 straight games going into the playoffs last season, clinched home-field advantage and a first-round bye, then completely tanked against New England.

Some Chargers still shake their heads at the unfathomable mistakes they made that day, the kind of blunders they didn't make in going 14-2.

So here come the Chargers again, having won six straight and 10 of 12 heading into their home playoff game against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.

The AFC West champion Chargers think it will be every bit as physical as it was at Tennessee on Dec. 9, when they had three star players hobble off the field with injuries and still rallied from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to win in overtime.

There's plenty more motivation than simply beating Tennessee for the second time in five weeks, and perhaps settling any lingering animosity from that hard-hitting game.

"We have a lot to prove," said coach Norv Turner, who finished his first 11-win season when the Chargers beat the Oakland Raiders 30-17 on Sunday.

Turner wasn't with the Chargers for their playoff meltdowns last year and in 2004. Those playoff losses, both at home, are part of Marty Schottenheimer's 5-13 postseason record.

Turner is 1-1 in the playoffs in 10 seasons as a head coach, having reached the postseason with Washington in 1999.

Although he said he got over the New England playoff loss after a few months, LaDainian Tomlinson said the Chargers were a bit full of themselves last January, as they were for much of the second half of the 2006 season.

"Last year, the season we had, it felt so easy throughout the year, winning something like 10 straight," said Tomlinson, fresh off his second straight NFL rushing title. "You had to get to that point where we were kind of a little arrogant, and saying, 'You know what? We don't think nobody out there can beat us.' We won 10 straight. You can have a tendency as human nature to do that. We did that last year and we paid for it.

"This year things have come tougher for us. We have really been in some tough games. We have lost some tough games, some close games, and we have had games where we just got embarrassed. So I think all that, you go into the playoffs with a newfound respect, somewhat."

Quarterback Philip Rivers doesn't necessarily think the Chargers have something to prove. But he does know that their playoff history isn't pretty.

"We want to finish at the top at the end of the month. Obviously this is a first step," said Rivers, who sprained his left knee in the first game against the Titans but threw the tying touchdown pass with 9 seconds left in regulation. "We're not blind to the fact that we've lost two playoff games in the last four years, haven't won one since I don't know the exact year. We know all those things. That's not why we're going out there Sunday, is to prove we can win a playoff game. But obviously that will come with it."

The Chargers are 0-4 in the postseason dating to their Super Bowl nightmare against the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 29, 1995. Since then, every NFL team except Detroit, Cincinnati, Kansas City and the expansion Browns and Texans have won at least one playoff game.

After losing a home wild-card game after the 1995 season, San Diego went eight straight seasons without making the playoffs. In 2004, the Chargers won the AFC West, then lost at home to the New York Jets in overtime.

"I think we've learned our lesson in two playoff games, that you've got to keep your composure and play smart and be the team that holds it all together in all phases, not just emotionally, but physically and execution and all those things," Rivers said. "We need no more to get us motivated for this game. We need to go play."

Rivers said the 24-21 loss to the Patriots last January "still lingers a little bit. I can go through the plays pretty vividly right now. It's been a year now. We're right back where we said we were going to be. We said we were going to learn a lot from that game.

"This year we talked about how much we've fought through adversity and gotten better each week. So I think everything we've said we wanted to do, and put ourselves in a position to be able to accomplish something. We're there now. You want to make sure you make the best of it. I think we're a year better, obviously one more game of playoff experience. I would expect us to be ready to go and play well."

Outside linebacker Shaun Phillips was fined $7,500 for a horse-collar tackle during the Titans. Four players were docked a total of $32,500 by the NFL.

Titans linemen Kevin Mawae and David Stewart were fined for a late hit that knocked out ChargersPro Bowl outside linebacker Shawne Merriman with a sprained left knee. Merriman later said teammates told him Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher ordered a hit on him in retaliation for Merriman knocking Titans quarterback Vince Young out of the game in the second quarter.

Merriman missed the following game but then returned.

Phillips doesn't think there's any unsettled business from the regular-season matchup.

"Nah, I mean, we won the game. That's all that matters to us. It's a new game now. We get to play them at home. It's going to be another fun, physical game. I'm looking forward to it," Phillips said.

"The refs might control it a little bit so we're just going to go out and play our style of football and try to come out on top."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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