SAN DIEGO – Time stopped in San Diego on Sunday afternoon, just long enough for 65,640 hearts to skip a beat in unison. The fate of a superstar, his team, a maligned coach and an insecure fan base hung precariously in the balance for a second, maybe two, as LaDainian Tomlinson hovered motionless while pressed against a pile of substantial humanity on the south side of Qualcomm Stadium.
Would LT-in-limbo be denied, allowing the Tennessee Titans life in the fourth quarter of their tense first-round playoff clash with the San Diego Chargers? Would the great halfback, like his franchise, remain stuck in a web of postseason futility and regret?
Or would LT score and, at long last, slam the door on the notion that he and the Chargers couldn't come through when it counted most?
For Tomlinson, there was only the latter option.
"I was going in – period," he said. "It was a critical play. I had to score. We had to score."
The touchdown that Tomlinson was about to score, the final points in San Diego's 17-6 victory over a relentless and valiant Titans team, was one of the least dynamic of the 132 he has accumulated over his brilliant, seven-year career.
It may, however, have been the most important. When LT reached out with his right arm and put the ball just over the goal line, a split second before it was slapped away by Tennessee linebacker Colin Allred, everything changed in a city that hadn't experienced postseason success in 13 years.
Do you think Tomlinson would have tolerated anything short of a score? Not when you consider the events that led up to his game-clinching thrust, which took place with 8:45 remaining in the fourth quarter.
After a first half in which the underdog Titans dominated on both sides of the line of scrimmage and forged a 6-0 lead that should have been bigger, the Chargers finally started moving the ball through the air. On the first drive of the third quarter, San Diego faced a fourth-and-1 from the Tennessee 2-yard line, and coach Norv Turner called for the field goal unit.
As Nate Kaeding's 20-yard kick sailed through the uprights, some of the fans at Qualcomm started to boo.
"No, crowd, shut up!" Tomlinson screamed on the sidelines. "We need to put some points on the board."
Yet Tomlinson, who finished with just 42 yards on 21 carries, had a different outlook when the Chargers had a chance to deliver a fatal blow to the Titans' hopes. On third-and-goal from the 10, quarterback Philip Rivers threw a quick pass underneath to LT, assuming Turner had opted to play it safe.
"On that play," Rivers said later, "we're probably not gonna score."
Tomlinson nearly did, darting forward and twisting his body as safety Vincent Fuller brought him down a foot-and-a-half from the goal line. After a replay flashed on the stadium scoreboard, Rivers began gesturing for Turner to challenge the call, egged on by the crowd.
Turner took the bait – the move was, to some cynical fans, Schottenheimeresque – but the replay review confirmed that Tomlinson hadn't scored. By the time referee Ed Hochuli announced the outcome, LT had already resigned himself to the fact that Turner had another fourth-down decision to make.
"Look, guys, if we run the ball here, I'm going over the top," Tomlinson told his linemen on the field. "So try to get as low as you can and keep 'em down."
There was just the small matter of needing to convince Turner to give him the ball. After the game, as he headed out into the players' parking lot at Qualcomm, Tomlinson said he believed Turner had already decided to kick the field goal before his lobbying effort began.
"I told him, 'Just do a play straight ahead at them,'" Tomlinson recalled. "And that was it. He did it."
You bet your sweet headset he did.
High up in a luxury box, Tomlinson's brother, LaVar, knew what was coming. "He's going over," LaVar told his brother's wife, LaTorsha.
She didn't smile in response.
As he prepared to take the handoff, LT knew the literal hit he was about to take from the Titans would likely pale in comparison to the figurative pounding he was going to get later from his spouse.
"She doesn't like that play," he explained. "One time, in my first or second year here, she saw me jump and it looked like I broke my neck. Ever since then she's been saying, 'Don't do it anymore.'"
In that tenuous situation, LaDainian didn't even consider heeding that advice.
"Desperate times call for desperate measures," he said. "If we don't convert, they could go all the way down the field and score and take the lead."
So here it was: a future Hall of Fame halfback trying to win his first playoff game in three tries; Turner, so maligned after being brought in to replace the fired Marty Schottenheimer following last year's 14-2 regular season (and disastrous playoff defeat to the Patriots), putting it all in his best player's hands; indomitable defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and the punishing yet properly reverential Titans summoning one, last mighty stand.
"LT's one of my favorite players, man," Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck said shortly after congratulating Tomlinson outside Qualcomm. "It's not often you get to play against someone who's going to go down in history as one of the best ever to play, and getting to compete against him in a game like this was special."
Tomlinson took the ball, launched himself toward the goal line and was met in midair by Tennessee middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who stopped his progress short. He teetered backward for a split second before coming to a rest with his feet off the ground and Titans linebacker David Thornton clinging onto him amid the pile of bodies. Hochuli could have justifiably blown his whistle then, but he waited, and before anyone exhaled LT had reached the ball over for the touchdown.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher challenged the ruling, praying for a miraculous reversal. He didn't get it, and a celebration began for a victory that will remain significant even if the Chargers go to Indianapolis for next Sunday's divisional round and get bounced by the Colts.
"We needed this," linebacker Shaun Phillips said early Monday morning as he and about a dozen teammates blew off some steam at Olé Madrid, a bar in the Gaslamp Quarter. "And we're not done."
As Sunday showed, they'll go as far as Tomlinson's legs – and, in this case, his right arm – can carry them.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• So this whole Tony Romo to Mexico thing has apparently caused quite a stir, I'm told. Call me crazy, but I sort of love the fact that the quarterback, his celebrity squeeze and some of his teammates left the country for some chillaxation during the bye week. If you'd met Romo and experienced his breezy, unfettered personality, you'd understand. Then again, if the Cowboys lose? Yoko Ono alert!
• Can the Giants beat the Cowboys in their third try this season? If T.O. is healthy enough to resemble his normal self, I tend to think not. Then again, I had no inkling that the Giants could possibly shake off an early deficit in Tampa and overpower the Bucs – one of several reasons I finished two games behind my victorious eight-year old son, Greg, in the family's weekend football pool.
• One really cool thing about the Jaguars' exciting, 31-29 victory over the Steelers Saturday night was that a big prime-time audience got to see some of Jacksonville's relatively unheralded standouts shine. From cornerback Rashean Mathis to halfback Maurice Jones-Drew and quarterback David Garrard, what a refreshing bunch of playmakers these guys are. Of course, it's a lot tougher making plays in Foxborough, no matter how much we all spend the next week convincing ourselves that they will.
• That fourth-quarter flurry by the Redskins, though it didn't hold up, was absolutely admirable, and it was cool to see rookie safety LaRon Landry come up with two interceptions as he blossoms into the kind of impact player that, sadly, the late Sean Taylor can no longer be. I loved the way the Seahawks responded, too. Though the final outcome was 21 points, this was a tremendously entertaining game.
• Tom Brady, congratulations on your first MVP award. I'm pretty sure it won't be your last.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• With the Redskins' defeat, Joe Gibbs lost for the first time in the postseason after his team had a second-half lead. He should be ashamed; he's now a dubious 17-1 in that situation. That's right, boys and girls, Joe Gibbs has won 17 postseason games. Did you really think he wouldn't have his team ready to play? Bummer for Washington, though.
• Since we're talking Seahawks, I'd like to thank my spy, KJR-AM radio host extraordinaire Mike (The Gas Man) Gastineau, for the following anecdote he observed while attending Saturday's game at Qwest Field: "(Redskins owner Daniel) Snyder's security detail arrived at the suite where he'd be sitting and before the game put up black paper on all the side windows so people couldn't see in. Trouble is … the way the suites are built at Qwest … this move would partially block the view of some people in the suite next to Snyder. The suite in question … the one with the view blocked … belongs to … the proud members of the Snoqualmie Tribe. So there you have it … the Redskins owner trying to block the view of Native Americans. Qwest security eventually convinced Snyder's goons to take the paper down."
• More from Gastineau: "One of Dan's guests on the day was Tom Cruise, who left the game shortly after Marcus Trufant's pick (for a fourth-quarter touchdown). Which, as (Gastineau's wife) Renee pointed out, just goes to show you that Col. Nathan R. Jessep was right when he told Lt. Daniel Kaffee, "you can't handle the truf!"
• What the hell is going on in Ninerland? First coach Mike Nolan allegedly gets stripped of his front-office power, as personnel chief Scot McCloughan is elevated to general manager, thus becoming his nominal boss. Then, as word spreads that McCloughan is dead-set against hiring Mike Martz as the team's new offensive coordinator, news breaks (courtesy of Santa Rosa Press Democrat beat writer extraordinaire Matt Maiocco) that Nolan will interview Martz on Monday. Who wears the pants, Mrs. DeBartolo York?
• Maybe I'm just jaded, but when I hear Roger Clemens say on "60 Minutes" that if the steroid allegations against him in the Mitchell Report were true, "I should have a third ear coming out of my forehead," my first thought is: Or, better yet, coming out of your exceptionally long, pointy nose.
• Come to think of it, would the freakishly muscular Hochuli join Clemens in taking a lie-detector test?
• Lastly, I realize it probably wouldn't have mattered, and I hate even to bring this up given the Chargers' glorious day, but I have a question for cornerback Drayton Florence: Dude, when you intercepted that Vince Young pass with 3:33 remaining and an 11-point lead, how could you not go right down with the ball, rather than trying to run with it, given the disastrous outcome of a similar decision by teammate Marlon McCree against the Pats a year ago? I mean, dude. Seriously.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. Why I ever eat anything but Mexican food.
2. How anyone can question Bucs coach Jon Gruden for having rested his starters, essentially tanking the final two games of the regular season, and claim that his doing so was the reason for Tampa Bay's defeat Sunday. First of all, it's ridiculous to assert that playing poorly in meaningless regular season games leads to certain playoff elimination. I learned that back in 1988, when I watched the 49ers get lit up by the Rams, 38-16, in their regular season finale. Two weeks later, in their playoff opener, they looked reasonably sharp, crushing the Vikings, 34-9, en route to a third Super Bowl championship. Secondly, the Bucs were a team full of banged-up veterans who required rest. Don't you think that Gruden, who by the way has won a Super Bowl, is in the best position to judge what his team needs? Finally, does anyone out there remember that the Bucs were supposed to be awful this season? What they accomplished, Sunday's disappointment notwithstanding, was commendable. The Bucs lost because the Giants were physically dominant and played better – period.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.
Chargers fans, I know you're rightfully in a good mood, and it's very hard for me to be anything but cheery in your presence at this particular moment. So take this with a grain of margarita salt: Are you really trying to make the case that Sunday's victory somehow validates the hiring of Norv Turner because "he won a playoff game, which Marty (Schottenheimer) didn't do"? This just in: Marty didn't win a first-round game last year because he didn't have to – his team had secured a bye. All Norv has done is get the Chargers back to the same place they were at this time last year, before they blew that game against the Pats. If the Chargers go to Indy and get rolled, or even lose at all, there has been no improvement. If they beat the Colts next Sunday, you'll be justified in giving Turner credit for getting the team to the next level. Until that time, grab another round of margaritas and spare me the rhetoric.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"I enjoyed your column (Friday) on the Chargers. I think it was on target and you filled in a few blanks for me. One thing you had no reason to mention. I watched Antonio Cromartie's very early play this season and noted his athleticism. Didn't know he'd have so many interceptions, but knew he'd become, and remain a starter. This kid is going to be very, very good, for many years. For once, a Chargers draft gamble pays off. Keep writin'. I'll keep readin'. At least one of us gets paid."
Thanks for the love, Mr. Love. I was at the Indy game earlier this season, so I definitely don't have to be sold on Cromartie. It's cool to be reminded, though.
"Admittedly, this is obviously not a question. It is, however, an apology. I read your articles religiously and have always found them to be quite articulate and knowledgable. However, you penned an article in this same segment roughly a month and a half ago which, as a San Diego Charger fan, raised my ire. While the specifics are not important at this juncture, I referred to you as a 'boil on the buttocks of humanity.' I do realize that part of the appeal of your writing is your ability to prey on emotion and I fell short in this arena. I humbly apologize."
I humbly accept, and I appreciate your continued interest.
"I remember my first impression of you was bad. You didn't think the Chargers would win the Super Bowl in the Yahoo! preseason poll. You were hard on them (especially Norv Turner) all season, until now. What a great article on the Chargers (Waxing Poetic). I questioned your knowledge and 'cockiness' when, in fact, your honesty and candor is what makes you such a great journalist. I pray that the Chargers play the Patriots this postseason and that karma intervenes."
Ah, come here. Give me a hug. (I'm still cocky, though.)
"I've written before to express my pleasure with your writing – especially your skewering of the morans [sic], but today I saw something from you beyond the flip and quip: your intro on the Chargers' transformation was … well, not moving, per se, but sensitive and almost gentle. Nicely done."
I am now tearing up inside. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
"Grammar and punctuation man, did you actually capitalize e.e. cummings? Release the hounds …"
New York City
Uh oh. Here we go.
"ee cummings eschewed caps and punctuation. Get it rite or don't right it."
"Just one quick nit-picky little thing I'm sure the more literate of your readers noticed: it is e.e. cummings, not E.E. Cummings. He eschewed capital letters. I am not sure why, as I really haven't read any biographies on him, but having read his poems and been chastised for capitalizing his name in an essay in high school, I can say that *his* name, while a proper noun, isn't supposed to be. However, as always, great column. Go Pats!"
New York City
Hey, after five months of Trippin' at Yahoo! Sports I'm just psyched that I have any literate readers. Thanks for pointing that out.
"Good to see that you capitalized E.E. Cummings' name. I'm sure the Yahoos on Yahoo! will be attacking you for doing it, but Cummings used lower case to express humility; your using lower case would be condescending. Go Riley!"
Thanks for understanding, and for mentioning my muse, Kevin Riley. And by E.E.'s (ee's) standard, I should write in all-caps.
"OK, I'm not even going to bother to finish your article before I say this to you. But thank you for properly capitalizing Cummings's name. It's about damn time that someone stood up to the silly convention that his little affectations must be propagated for all time. Well done, sir."
Thank you. And in case there was any debate out there in cyberspace, I am the boss of me.
"Given the lack of African-American coaches in the NCAA, would it be prudent for someone with as much credibility and football knowledge as Warren Sapp to be interviewed for a head coach or defensive doordinator position? Imagine that recruiting trip …"
Ah, I can only dream. I actually think Sapp would be best as a general manager. But that's for another column.
"'07 Pats first string offense vs. Ditka?"
Hmmm … Mini-Ditka, or Ditka.
"You are a capable, tolerant and entertaining scribe. Thank you. I am a Colts fan. Exactly how far do you think they will go? Lastly, do you ever get confused for Pete Sampras?"
Only when I walk around with my hot, blonde wife. Or when I serve. As for the Colts, I think they will go to Foxborough and at least give the Pats a decent run.
"This may be old news, but if you had a moustache you would look just like Borat."
"I really wish you'd use one of my comments to you in any one of your next columns … seriously. You're genius, and while correcting spelling mistakes and whatnot is fun, you know your football and are insanely entertaining. In even more seriousness, I'm glad Yahoo! signed you on this season and I look forward to your columns next season. On a lighter note, Go Eagles! We'll be better next year with McNabb and hopefully some different wide receivers. P.S: What do you think the Eagles should do about their WR issues? That's all."
Your wish is this genius' command. As for the Eagles, assuming they keep McNabb (and they should), I'd try to get a big, physical receiver to complement Reggie Brown and Kevin Curtis. The prototype would be someone like – well, T.O. But you don't want to hear that.
"O Deity, there is no Wikipedia article for you."
Grand Rapids, Mich.
That, my friend, is one of the world's great injustices.
"Interesting column about the Chargers. Although I'm not completely sold on him, it's worth noting that Philip Rivers has lost exactly two starts at home in San Diego, ever (the Patriots playoff game in January 2007 and a game against the Chiefs in September 2007). If he keeps that up and keeps beating the Raiders, he'll continue to have his supporters."
I suspect you're probably a little more sold on him after Sunday.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL OF THE WEEK
"u 2 and have fun at pro bowl and represent."
Text from Steelers receiver Hines Ward before realizing he had mistaken me for one of his more athletically-accomplished friends.