RB LaDainian Tomlinson (Donald Miralle/Getty)
The Chargers head to Tennessee on Sunday, knowing the team they face has changed for the better. Last year the Titans rolled into Qualcomm Stadium and got rolled to the tune of 40-7. That was then; this is December football in 2007, when both teams have plenty at stake.
The Chargers can clinch their third AFC West title in four years with a win Sunday and a Denver loss against the Chiefs. The Titans, at 7-5 like the Chargers, are in the hunt for an AFC wild-card berth.
LaDainian Tomlinson, after viewing the Titans' game tapes, said something is obvious: This isn't the 2006 Titans.
"They're playing with a whole lot more confidence, I think," said Tomlinson, the NFL's third-leading rusher. "They know exactly what they're trying to do and accomplish on defense.
"Last year it was early in the season, so they were still finding themselves. This year is later, and those guys obviously know what they do best. They do it to perfection. They've got some great players over there -- Albert Haynesworth and Keith Bulluck leading those guys. They're doing a good job at executing their game plan."
The Chargers' plan is to establish the running game, much as they did when punching the Chiefs in the nose in last week's win. Tomlinson ran for his second-highest total of the season (177 yards) and the Chargers had that look of 2006 about them.
But Tomlinson knows there is a behemoth in the middle of the Titans' line that makes running difficult for anyone -- Haynesworth. He returned after missing three games and was productive last week in his first outing back.
Tomlinson figures he will be even stronger this week.
"He obviously makes a difference, I don't think there's any question," Tomlinson said. "He's one of the best defensive tackles in the game. He's one of the most dominant. Obviously, when he's in there, you really have to pay attention and you have to try to double-team him. One guy can't block him. So that helps (the Titans). If one guy can't block him, then you have to take up two blockers. That means someone else is going to be free to get to the football."
Coach Norv Turner agrees.
"On any team, when you have a dominant player, a Pro Bowl-type player, and all of a sudden the guy doesn't play for three weeks, it does affect your team," he said. "We went through it when Nick (Hardwick), our center, was out. It's not anything against the guy who replaces him, but there's a reason those guys go to the Pro Bowl."
A win Sunday and some might speculate the Chargers would get a free pass to the playoffs, partly because they play in the awful AFC West. The Chargers are the only team in the division over .500; San Diego has just one victory this year over a winning team (Colts).
But all that matters little if the Chargers make the playoffs and then make some noise. The picture of last year remains fresh in the players' minds. They went an NFL-best 14-2, only to go toes up against the Patriots in their first playoff game.
"Really and truly, the regular season doesn't mean anything," Tomlinson said. "Obviously it does, trying to get to the playoffs, but once you solidify a playoff spot, then the regular season is over. It's one-and-done, and you've really got to be prepared to play week in and week out. If you don't, then you go home."
But before returning home next week to play the Lions, the Chargers must tangle with the Titans. And they do so after winning six of their past eight and two in a row. Just maybe, the wobbly Chargers are peaking at the right time.
"There is no question that I think we've played better in the last few months," Turner said. "I think there is a newness here in terms of staff and players and getting everything coordinated.
"I think we've revamped the wide receiver position because of some injuries and because of the Chris Chambers trade. I do believe we're playing better than we have at any point during the year, but I think we can improve a lot more in the next month."
Turner hopes that trend continues come Sunday in Nashville.
SERIES HISTORY: 39th meeting. Chargers lead 21-16-1 -- when including the Houston Oilers, the Titans' original name before moving to Nashville in 1997. The last time the Chargers were in Nashville was 1998, the Titans were still called the Oilers, the team played on the campus of Vanderbilt, and San Diego, behind QB Ryan Leaf, won its second consecutive game to start the season. Four games (and losses) later, coach Kevin Gilbride was fired.
--OLB Shawne Merriman was selected the AFC Defensive Player of the Week after his three-sack showing in Kansas City. "It's easy because our offense went out there and provided some points for us, which allows us to pin our ears back and just get after it a little bit and not play so tentative," Merriman said. "With our offense playing as well as its playing and our DBs playing as well as they are playing, we're going to be tough to beat."
--TE Antonio Gates is coming off a baffling game in which he had one catch for minus-1 yard. But coach Norv Turner said Gates can contribute without getting his mitts on the football. Defenses still have to pay special attention to the All-Pro. "That's one of the reasons why Vincent (Jackson) was covered by a safety down the middle for a touchdown," Turner said. "They were double-teaming Gates on the other side with a corner and a safety. That makes it pretty good when you can get a guy who can run like Vincent on a safety one-on-one." Jackson collected a 38-yard touchdown pass on the play.
--The Chargers have 20 interceptions, with CB Antonio Cromartie leading the league with eight. "Well, we've got a group of guys that I think really have a knack for getting to the ball," coach Norv Turner said. "Obviously, Cromartie is one of those who's got eight. We do have a good pass rush. We are able to pressure people. In a number of our games at home, we've been able to get ahead, then obviously you get in situations where they have to throw the football. Those types of situations have been helpful. I think for the most part we have guys that have a knack for getting to the ball."
--RB LaDainian Tomlinson still has a hard time swallowing that he has more touchdowns than his hero, Walter Payton. "It really hasn't set in, because in my mind, I'm still not on his level," Tomlinson said. "In my opinion, he's the greatest running back and greatest football player to ever play. I've idolized him since I was a kid. It hasn't really sunk in yet, what people say. I'm just enjoying the ride."
-Titans offensive coordinator Norm Chow held the same job with North Carolina State in Chargers QB Philip Rivers' freshman year there.
--Chargers FB Lorenzo Neal played two seasons with the Titans and was on the 1999 AFC championship team.
--Backup Chargers QB Billy Volek was with the Titans from 2000-06.
--When Titans coach Jeff Fisher was a defensive back for USC, Chargers coach Norv Turner was Fisher's position coach.
--The Chargers played the then-Houston Oilers for the first two AFL titles in 1960-61; the Chargers lost both games.
--Sunday marks the last time the Chargers will exit California in the regular season. They have two home games and a road outing at Oakland remaining.
--At 7-5, the Titans are in the hunt for one of the two AFC wild-card playoff berths; they are tied for the second one with the Browns.
BY THE NUMBERS: 1994-1995 -- The last time the Chargers made the playoffs in consecutive seasons. They can clinch their second consecutive AFC West title with a win at Tennessee and a Broncos loss to the Chiefs.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're smirking, not smiling." -- LB Shaun Phillips, on the confident but not cocky Chargers.