It seems like a long time since the San Diego Chargers were skipping off the field in capping the regular season with their 11th straight victory. Come Sunday, it's time to punch the clock and then punch out the visiting New York Jets in an AFC divisional playoff game.
The Chargers are back in a familiar spot -- the playoffs for the fourth straight season -- and they think the past will help the present.
"We've certainly grown each year," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "We've got a lot of guys who have played in playoff games, multiple playoff games, in every different situation. So certainly we do have some experience."
But Rivers is keen enough to know playoff sun-ups and sun-downs only go so far.
"Once the ball is kicked off it's a football game, in between the lines it will be played the same as it's played any other time," he said. "We need to be at our best. Obviously the Jets have some momentum and are playing really good football and we need to be at our best on Sunday; I'm sure they'll be. That's all you can ask for in a playoff game."
Many anticipate the Chargers, favored by at least a touchdown, to have their way with the frisky Jets.
Then again the Chargers have been down this playoff path before. They were favored against this same Jets team in a wild-card playoff game during the 2004 season and were upset in overtime.
They were favored as the No. 1 seed in the 2006 season and fell in a heartbreaker to the New England Patriots.
So while everyone else has punched the Chargers ticket to the AFC Championship Game, the Chargers are holding off.
"They're a good team," Rivers said of the Jets. "Anybody you face, we said last week, is going to be a really good team. I think they're just that. They played really good football down the stretch, which is what you want to do: be playing your best ball at playoff time."
If so, no one is hotter than the Chargers, owners of an 11-game winning streak. Much of that success has been because of an offense that has spit out at least 20 points in 22 straight games.
Then again, the Jets made this playoff party based on their defense. It's good, aggressive and plays with a boatload of confidence.
"As far as their defense is concerned, it's going to be a challenge," said Rivers, who finished third in the MVP balloting. "They'll be as good as any we've played so far and again, that's what you expect. You get to this point in the season -- the playoffs -- and it's going to be a lot of good versus good out there."
It's been nearly three months since the Chargers wore a frown after a game. But after a week off as the No. 2 seed, they realize they need to find their upbeat tempo again.
"When you play in the playoffs, everything is faster," linebacker Shawne Merriman said. "Just when you think that you are running as fast as you possibly can, you have to pick it up. Dive for the extra inches and finish every tackle.
"That's what it's been about for us."
It's obvious the Chargers welcomed their bye week as a time to get everyone as fit as possible. When a team enters a playoff game with only one player on the injury list -- punter Mike Scifres -- you know the players are feeling good.
"I'm excited because it's a long season," said Merriman, who has battled knee, groin and foot issues. "And to start the way we did (2-3) and to have this winning streak and go on that run like we did and to even win against Washington to keep our momentum going like we did makes it great. I'm excited to go out and play some football."
A win and it's off to Indianapolis; if the Ravens beat the Colts, the Chargers could be host for the game that determines which team heads to the Super Bowl.
Linebacker Shaun Phillips said the Chargers are ready.
"We're going with the mind-set in the game that we won't lose," he said. "We are going to play to win in everything we do. The feeling of losing hurts so much that it makes you work that much harder. And for me, that's my main focus."
The Chargers have long zeroed in on winning their first Super Bowl. They can take another step in that direction on Sunday.
Even if boastful Jets coach Rex Ryan said the red-hot Chargers are due for a stinker.
"I personally believe that we have had bad games but we've been able to overcome adversity," Phillips said. "There are games like the Giants game where we had to claw and fight and come back and win that game. Again, we overcame adversity.
"We can't think about what Coach Ryan has to say. We have to think about what we do. We are going to continue with the mind-set that it's about what the Chargers do and how we execute our game plan."
SERIES HISTORY: 33rd overall meeting. Chargers lead series, 19-12-1, and have won two straight. That includes the Jets' last visit to San Diego in 2008, when they were blasted by the Chargers, 48-29. The teams have met once in the postseason, with the Jets upsetting the Chargers in overtime 20-17 in the wild-card round during the 2004 season.
--It's been written the Chargers have been successful because of all the backups who have come through after injuries decimated part of the defense. OLB Shaun Phillips said the Chargers didn't play the pity card; instead they just rolled up their sleeves and got after it.
"It doesn't matter what 10 other guys are beside me out there because I know that they will get the job done," he said. "It really doesn't matter. Whether it's 11 healthy guys or 11 replacements, we have to go out there and we have execute. It's not the individual player; it's the group of players together collectively. It's been doing it all year; we've been doing it collectively.
"Everyone brings up that we're giving up 4 yards a play against the run. Yes, we are giving up 4 yards a play, but if we have to give up 4 yards a play against the run and win a ball game, then we'll do that every time. Obviously it's been working for us and obviously it's been a winning formula, so we're going to continue to get out there and execute our game plan and keep playing hard. They're a good football team coming in here and they're playing for a lot, just like we're playing for a lot. Everything will be answered on Sunday."
--RB LaDainian Tomlinson has been hearing about from fans and teammates -- his Nike commercial was linked on the Internet this week. It features Tomlinson cutting a rug in the Eclectic Glide video.
"The idea was to get my fans a different side of me that they don't get to see," Tomlinson said. "A lot of times they get to see the guy on the football field and the real focused type of guy. The side that they don't see is the fun, dance around, kind of goofy type of person that I am. Only my family and friends get to see that side of me. So the idea was to give the fans a different side of me. And I know that everybody is not going to like it but I just wanted to kind of do something different. It was fun doing it."
--C Nick Hardwick won't be surprised if the Jets try to attack the right side of the Chargers' offensive line, to take advantage of the inexperienced Louis Vasquez and Brandyn Dombrowski.
"I think a lot of teams have tried that and it hasn't worked so well," he said.
--DE Luis Castillo knows the Chargers are facing a top-notch offensive line in the Jets. "We've faced the challenge before -- big, physical offensive lines," Castillo said. "This is just part of the process."
--Coach Norv Turner on the Chargers' running game, which isn't much: "We need the balance and then we need to take our shots."
--Turner said Rex Ryan's defenses are pretty simple: "They zero in on the things you do best and take them away."
--Castillo isn't buying the notion that the Chargers are facing a rookie quarterback in Mark Sanchez on Sunday. "They are talking about a rookie quarterback but at this point of the season, he is going into his second year," he said.
--For a time this season, Rivers was seeing more than his fair share of blitzes. But more often than not, he would turn them into big plays for the Chargers. "He sees things awfully quickly," Turner said. "And he gets the ball out."
--The Chargers have won 18 consecutive games in the month of December dating to a 24-21 win at Buffalo on December 3, 2006. It's the most wins for the month of December and ties an NFL record for the most in a calendar month, set by the Miami Dolphins in November during the 1970-74 seasons.
BY THE NUMBERS: 17 -- Number of Chargers turnovers, which was No. 2 in the NFL. But in a nod to the defense, rivals scored only 44 points off those turnovers.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Absolutely. That's why you play. You train to be the best; you play to be the best. Obviously right now he's considered one of the top guys in the league. I'm looking forward to it." -- WR Vincent Jackson, on going against Jets shutdown CB Darrelle Revis on Sunday.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Chargers' defensive line will have a different look -- and that's a good thing.
Defensive end Jacques Cesaire is practicing and will return to his starting position this week.
The Chargers have been keeping the unit together with a patchwork collection of players. But Cesaire is among the most experienced and talented players the Chargers have up front.
With the Jets figuring to run the ball, it will be a key for Cesaire -- and his teammates -- to be stout against the run.
--OLB Shawne Merriman is hopeful all this rest pays off. Merriman has been battling a foot injury and basically took two weeks off before resuming practice this week; he didn't play in the regular-season final. This could result in him playing more Sunday. In some earlier games when he did start, his snaps were limited because of his foot.
--WR Malcom Floyd could be in for a big day if the Jets turn most of their attention to WR Vincent Jackson. Floyd is coming off a career-best 140-yard receiving game and has QB Philip Rivers' confidence from their days when both were backups.
--FS Eric Weddle is running freely again after being slowed down the stretch with a sprained knee. He missed two weeks and then aggravated it in his return. He's a go this week.
--SS Kevin Ellison, a rookie, might be tested more on the over-the-top routes if the Jets weren't so keen on running. Ellison has played well since taking over as a starter, but his play is worth watching.
--ILB Brandon Siler's stock continues to rise after wrestling a starting position away from Kevin Burnett. Siler's physical play has impressed the Chargers and he gets a chance to prove it again Sunday against the run-oriented Jets.
GAME PLAN: It sounds odd to say a team wants to score early -- duh -- but it is especially true come Sunday for the Chargers.
If the Chargers can take some offensive chances early in the game and built a lead, it will work in the favor in more ways than one.
The Jets aren't built to rally from very large deficits. Get ahead and you just might stay ahead of the Jets.
And if they do fall behind, they will have to ask a rookie quarterback who led the NFL with 20 interceptions this season, to start flinging the ball around. If that's the case, the Chargers will be unable to unleash their pass rush and that could mean forcing Sanchez into turnovers and sacks.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Chargers passing game, which features WR Vincent Jackson, vs. the Jets' top-ranked pass defense, which features CB Darrelle Revis.
Jackson leads the league with 17.2 yards per catch but he figures to get a heavy dose of Revis tracking him on Sunday. Jackson has been slowed by tender Achilles' tendon but the time off as done him well. But Revis is out to prove he's the NFL's shutdown corner. There's no guarantee the Jets' coverages will rotate the Pro Bowler Revis toward Jackson, but they likely will.
Chargers right side of the offensive line, which features rookie RG Louis Vasquez and RT Brandyn Dombrowski, vs. Jets 3-4 front which includes Shaun Ellis and Sione Pouha, and outside linebacker Bryan Thomas.
Vasquez's season at Texas Tech was over by this time last year; Dombrowski spent all of last season on the Chargers' practice squad. But the two have played well; that doesn't mean they won't be tested by a Rex Ryan defense. Ellis has 6.5 sacks; Thomas has two. The Chargers will attach a tight end to Dombrowski's hip on many downs to help his cause.
Chargers anemic running game, which is ranked 31st in the league, vs. the Jets run defense, which allows only 99 yards per game.
The Chargers swear they need to run the ball but they keep winning without doing just that. But LaDainian Tomlinson is spry and healthy heading into the postseason and he has a nice complement in Darren Sproles.
INJURY IMPACT: The Chargers hope the extra week off will prove beneficial, especially for OLB Shawne Merriman (foot), FS Eric Weddle (knee) and DE Jacques Cesaire (elbow), who will return to his starting position. The only player on the injury report is P Mike Scifres (groin), who nonetheless practiced fully Wednesday.
Two years ago, LaDainian Tomlinson and Shawne Merriman were headliners. Now, they are coming off…