LaDainian Tomlinson finished off one of the best statistical seasons in NFL history with an MVP award, but he and the San Diego Chargers lack the playoff success of their AFC divisional-round opponents.
Tomlinson will try to prove himself in the postseason when the top-seeded Chargers host the New England Patriots on Sunday.
Tomlinson rushed for a league-high 1,815 yards and scored an NFL-record 31 touchdowns this season, leading San Diego to a franchise-best 14-2 record and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The stellar season earned him acclaim as perhaps the most dangerous player in the NFL, as he scored 23 touchdowns in his last 10 games.
“He’s the MVP. I don’t know how you could be any more complete than that,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s looked pretty good to me, unfortunately, every time we’ve seen him. We’re usually looking at the back of his jersey. We haven’t done very well against him. He’s killed a lot of people besides us, and he’s killed us.”
Tomlinson has punished the Patriots the last two times the teams have met. He had 134 yards rushing and two touchdowns as San Diego won 41-17 on Oct. 2, 2005, snapping New England’s 21-game home winning streak and handing the Patriots their worst loss in 41 games.
He had 217 yards and two touchdowns in San Diego’s 21-14 win at home Sept. 29, 2002, the most recent matchup at Qualcomm Stadium.
Both of those games came in the regular season, though. When it comes to the playoffs, almost nobody can compare to New England.
Quarterback Tom Brady improved to 11-1 as a starter in the playoffs with the Patriots’ 37-16 win over the New York Jets on Sunday in the wild-card round. Belichick is 12-2 in the postseason and has the second-best winning percentage in NFL history.
“You definitely respect them for the things they’ve done in the past and the things they’ve done throughout the season,” Chargers All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates said. “You just want to go out and play with respect. But at the same time, you fear no one. That’s our mindset.”
New England (13-4) has won three Super Bowls since 2001, while San Diego has appeared in just one postseason game during that span, a 20-17 overtime loss to the Jets two years ago in the divisional round.
Tomlinson carried 26 times for 80 yards in that game—only a 3.1 average per carry—and the Chargers lost despite having a first-round bye.
That was the fifth straight playoff defeat for Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, who’s had three teams in the last 11 seasons earn first-round byes, only to be upset by the lower seed each time. He’s never reached the Super Bowl despite 210 career wins—fifth all-time.
Schottenheimer is 5-12 in the playoffs, and his conservative style of play in the postseason, dubbed “Martyball,” has often been cited as the reason.
“My feeling about it is, that if you’re going to be a champion, you’re going to have to play and win along the way,” Schottenheimer said. “If you play them in the first round, second round, championship game, it really doesn’t matter. For us it’s staying in the moment and finding a way to win one game this weekend.”
San Diego went 8-0 at home this season and has won 10 in a row to earn the third No. 1 seed in franchise history, but the Chargers have a quarterback in Philip Rivers who’s in his first season as the starter. In the last two years, teams that had a quarterback making his first playoff start have gone 0-6.
Rivers, though, led the Chargers to the NFL’s best record this season, earning a Pro Bowl spot by throwing for 3,388 yards and 22 touchdowns. He’s played especially well in the fourth quarter, posting an NFL-best 116.6 passer rating.
“I’m not sure what to expect from him,” Tomlinson said. “He is excited about being in the playoffs. Part of being a quarterback, you keep that even keel of not getting too excited. But in the weight room just a while ago he was talking about how after the New England game, he was already ready to go. So I’m thinking to myself, ‘We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got six days, Philip.’
“It’s good, because he’s excited to be in his first playoff game. For us who’ve played in the playoff game, we’re reminded that a fast horse runs fast, but it don’t run long,” Tomlinson said.
Brady is a two-time Super Bowl MVP who’s thrown a touchdown pass in 10 consecutive playoff games, the third-longest streak in NFL history. He’s posted a passer rating of better than 100 in five of his last seven postseason contests and has the lowest interception rate in NFL postseason history.
His only loss in the playoffs came last year in the divisional round, when he threw two interceptions and the Patriots had five turnovers in a 27-13 defeat at Denver.
“He’s the field general,” Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson said. “He never sits down when we’re off the field and he’s always rallying the troops. He’s a fiery guy and a great competitor. He was locked in from the beginning. He lets us hear it when we don’t do stuff right, but it’s constructive and we know he just wants to win. When I was in college, he was out here winning Super Bowls, so there’s no quarterback I’d rather have.”
New England had won 10 straight in the series before San Diego’s two victories in the last five seasons. This is the second playoff meeting between the teams. The Chargers won their only AFL championship by rolling up 610 yards of total offense in a 51-10 win over the Boston Patriots in 1963.