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L.T., Taylor aim to cap decorated careers with first Super Bowl

You want something to like about those smack-talking New York Jets?

You want a storyline that's a little warmer and fuzzier than the in-your-face style of Rex Ryan and all of the bombast it encourages throughout the team?

Try this on for size: Two highly respected veterans nearing retirement are a game away from appearing in their first Super Bowl.

Now that's something to embrace.

LaDainian Tomlinson and Jason Taylor have had tremendous individual production during long and distinguished careers as a running back and defensive end/outside linebacker, respectively. In 2006, Tomlinson was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player while Taylor was voted Defensive Player of the Year.

Impressive hardware, to be certain, but such honors pale in comparison to a Super Bowl ring.

"I have had a lot of individual success, but didn't get a chance to taste that team success," Taylor told reporters. "And this is the ultimate team success. You want that ring.

"All the other things are great. The Pro Bowls and all that other crap are fine, but if you're not winning as a team and getting a chance to be a champion, it's not worth it."

Although Tomlinson and Taylor wouldn't be the first exceptional players to exit the league with that enormous void, it's only natural to root for them to fill it while the opportunity still exists. But that isn't the only reason. Besides making meaningful contributions to the Jets' march to the AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh on Sunday, they have served as experienced voices of stability, reason, and inspiration on a team better known for making inflammatory remarks and causing controversy.

One of the more memorable scenes from the Jets' stunning divisional playoff victory against the New England Patriots was Tomlinson gathering his teammates in one of the Gillette Stadium end zones and delivering an emotional pregame pep talk. He reminded them that "any man can be beat." He stressed that they had to be "willing to die for it today," and later told reporters what we already knew: "Our guys were."

In the days leading up to the game, cornerback Antonio Cromartie launched into a profanity-laced tirade directed at Tom Brady because of what he perceived as taunting by the quarterback in the Jets' 45-3 loss at New England in Week 13. Taylor had this very calm and reasonable take on the subject: "If you keep him out of the end zone, you won't be offended by him."

Tomlinson and Taylor joined the Jets this season after leaving the teams with which they made their mark on the NFL. Theirs is a familiar tale. Eventually, every player wears out his welcome, whether it's because his performance deteriorates or new decision-makers with no attachment to them come in -- as they inevitably do -- and make changes.

The San Diego Chargers, with whom Tomlinson spent nine seasons, had no more use for him after he finished 2009 with career lows for rushing yards, carries, and yards per carry. The Miami Dolphins, with whom Taylor spent 12 of his 14 years in the league, kicked him to the curb after determining he no longer could make a significant contribution.

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And there were the Jets, waiting to welcome them with open arms. They saw adding the two seasoned veterans as critical components to their ability to finish games, something they were unable to do in squandering an 11-point first-half lead on the way to a 30-17 loss in last year's AFC title game at Indianapolis.

"It's been a long journey to get to this point in my career," Taylor said. "I never doubted it would happen, but I didn't always expect it, either, sometimes."

The opportunity could very well have the added bonus of enhancing Tomlinson's and Taylor's cases for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, although as far as Ryan is concerned, Tomlinson already has had a "first-ballot Hall-of-Fame career."

At 31, Tomlinson isn't the player he was while establishing himself as the most recognizable name and face on the Chargers, and one of the elite running backs in the NFL. Yet, despite the widely held assumption that he would be only a complement to second-year back Shonn Greene, Tomlinson managed to lead the Jets with 914 rushing yards and six touchdowns, and 1,282 total yards from scrimmage.

As the season progressed, he showed signs of slowing down and feeling the effects of wear and tear on his body. But since sitting out the season-finale, after the Jets clinched a wild-card spot, Tomlinson has shown plenty of life in playoff wins against the Colts (82 yards, two touchdowns) and Patriots (4.3 yards per carry).

Tomlinson also had a seven-yard scoring catch against New England that made his ability to avenge multiple postseason losses to the Patriots when we was with San Diego that much sweeter. Then, of course, there was that surprising divisional-playoff loss to the Jets last year, in what would prove to be his final game in a Chargers uniform.

"I think everybody (else on the team) senses that he wants what everybody else does, and that's just a shot at that ring," Ryan told reporters. "This is the thing he's always talked about since he's been here."

In all of his time with the Dolphins, Taylor won three wild-card games, the last of which was in 2000 against the Colts. He isn't the dominant pass-rusher he once was, and doesn't get on the field as often as he used to. But he did finish the regular season with five sacks, which ranked third on the team.

Taylor, 36, also had four tackles against New England, and played a key role on one of the bigger stops of the season when he was able to get penetration on a fourth-and-1 play. He did suffer a concussion in the second half of the game that caused him to miss practice Wednesday and limited his work on Thursday, but he has been medically cleared to play at Pittsburgh, his hometown.

"Coming to New York, this is where I expected to be and the situation I expected to be in," Taylor said. "Thank God it's played out to this point, but we're not done yet."

As the Steelers' coaches prepare for Sunday's showdown, they're going to pay particularly close attention to a play in their December loss to the Jets that heavily swung momentum in the opponent's favor: A safety by Taylor.

More plays like that from Tomlinson and Taylor could go a long way toward making the Jets downright likeable.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) rushes during an NFL football game between the between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Peter Joneleit)

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