Editor's note: Michael Silver will hold a Live Trippin' session Wednesday, Dec. 31, at 1 p.m. ET.
LaDainian Tomlinson has waited nearly a year for this moment, absorbing body blows and shots to his reputation with no realistic hope of offering a convincing response.
Tomlinson, whose toughness was questioned after he missed most of last January's AFC championship game with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, was stung by the criticism and anguished by his inability to help the Chargers get past the New England Patriots in the most important game of his career.
Eleven-and-a-half months later, after a frustrating and injury-plagued 2008 campaign, LT would like nothing more than to make the Indianapolis Colts – the Chargers' opponent in Saturday night's first-round playoff game at Qualcomm Stadium – feel his pain.
"Just getting another opportunity is great," Tomlinson said after last Sunday's 52-21 defeat of the Denver Broncos, which propelled San Diego into the postseason after a dispiriting 4-8 start. "That's all you can ask for is another chance. I plan to make the most of it."
Yet even in the wake of his most impressive effort of 2008, a three-touchdown performance against the Broncos that included his longest run of the season, Tomlinson's plan is in danger of being thwarted. Late in the third quarter, having rushed for 96 yards on 14 carries, LT felt a twinge in his abdominal muscle that was later diagnosed as a groin strain. He is expected to play against the Colts but conceded to reporters on Monday that the injury will affect him, adding, "I don't think I'll be 100 percent."
It has been that kind of year for the eighth-year star who, amid a slew of health issues and an accompanying statistical dropoff, has some NFL insiders wondering if he's in a steep decline as he closes in on his 30th birthday in June.
Hobbled by a painful toe injury for much of the season, Tomlinson averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in '08, his lowest total since his rookie season and a precipitous drop from last season's 4.7 figure. His 1,110 rushing yards were a career low, and his 426 receiving yards (on 52 receptions) represented his third-least-prolific season. For only the second time in his career, he was not selected to the Pro Bowl.
Stylistically, Tomlinson has been less prone to sharp, decisive cuts and hasn't been able to turn the corner as frequently as in past seasons. He has made a habit of running out of bounds, and he has been less effective in short-yardage situations.
Yet through most of the Chargers' current four-game winning streak – and especially against the Broncos – LT started looking more like the player who scored a record 31 touchdowns in his MVP season of 2006. Early in the third quarter of the Denver game, he burst through the line and darted down the left sideline for a 45-yard run, his longest since a 49-yarder against the Detroit Lions in December of '07.
On the Chargers' sideline, it was as if a season's worth of doubt and underachievement had been replaced by optimism and swagger.
"It's a great feeling when you see him break one off like that," inside linebacker Stephen Cooper said, "because he is the best running back in the league, no matter what his stats say. Whenever he gets going like that, it gets the team going, and we all feed off of it. He's showing he's still the best, and it couldn't come at a better time."
Tomlinson, too, reveled in the breakout performance, which followed strong December efforts against the Raiders (91 yards) and Bucs (90).
"I finally had a chance to show I've still got it and can be highly successful," Tomlinson said at his postgame news conference. "So it is gratifying to finally come out here and prove to all the naysayers that this old man can still run."
Later, as he headed back to the Qualcomm Stadium field to pose for photos with some visiting children, Tomlinson reluctantly conceded that the toe injury he suffered in the team's season-opening defeat to the Panthers had bothered him for the first three months of the '08 campaign.
"My toe was killing me early in the season," he said. "It wasn't right. I just had to fight through it, and it took me three-quarters of the season before it started feeling better. Finally, in the Atlanta game [a Nov. 30 loss to the Falcons], I was able to do some of the things I could do in the past. It makes a huge difference."
Another big difference, in Tomlinson's eyes, has been the improved play of his offensive line. "They've been so good the last few weeks," he said. "They deserve most of the credit."
Springing Tomlinson has been an achievement for a unit that has been in transition for the past two seasons, after coach Marty Schottenheimer, who favored a power running attack, was replaced by Norv Turner, who has gradually shifted the focus of the offense to quarterback Philip Rivers.
Last season Tomlinson's personal escort, All-Pro fullback Lorenzo Neal, had his playing time curtailed, and he was released over the offseason. Neal has since signed with the Ravens, where he has played a key role in establishing one of the league's best rushing attacks, and believes it's unfair to view Tomlinson's decreased production as a sign of his decline.
"You can't judge him based on previous standards because the entire personality of the team has changed," Neal said recently. "If he was in a situation where they were committed to the power-running game, then you could properly evaluate him."
Neal was one of Tomlinson's many defenders after NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders and others criticized the halfback, who had sprained his MCL in the Chargers' 2007 divisional-round playoff upset of the Colts, for sitting out most of the AFC championship game. After two early carries, Tomlinson spent most of the frigid day in Foxborough, Mass., sitting alone at the end of a bench looking dejected while covered by a parka. The body language in San Diego's 21-12 defeat to the Pats was cited by critics as a sign of his lack of desire.
Realistically, it was a product of the powerlessness he felt with his team's season on the line.
"It's the hardest thing you can ever go through," Tomlinson said. "To see your team fighting for a shot at the Super Bowl and to want to have an impact and not be able to help at all – it's just a terrible feeling. It's so great to have another opportunity."
The question, of course, is this: Now that LT has a shot at redemption, will his groin hold up, or will his body betray him again?
Having dispensed with the 20 teams lacking an opportunity for postseason glory, here are 12 additional queries, beginning with the strongest playoff participant and ending with the only team in the field that doesn't boast a winning record:
1. Tennessee Titans: If the Titans reach the Super Bowl, will the delay hurt Jim Schwartz's prospects of landing a head-coaching gig?
2. New York Giants: If you had Tom Coughlin lasting longer than Eric Mangini in that head-coaching "death" pool two years ago, how bummed were you at the time?
3. Pittsburgh Steelers: When Ben Roethlisberger lay on the grass for 15 minutes while everyone at Heinz Field held his/her breath last Sunday, why did I think of Borat's classic Oklahoma City Council address?
6. Baltimore Ravens: If I had told you last December that Cam Cameron would win a playoff game in Miami in '08, would you have had me drug-tested?
7. Atlanta Falcons: If there were a Rookie of the Decade award, is there any doubt that Matty Ice would win that, too?
8. Miami Dolphins: So, hypothetically, do you think Chad Pennington possessed the arm strength to make a certain gesture to Eric Mangini and Mike Tannenbaum after last Sunday's game at Giants Stadium?