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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Playoff Veterans

SAN DIEGO — It’s in the newfound boringness of so many previously talkative Chargers. It’s in the way they work on Wednesday and the way they walk away from games on Sunday, ready for Monday and what comes next.
It’s in how they finished the season, making it important even when it didn’t matter.
“I’m just amazed by the focus at this point,” tight end Antonio Gates said. “The preparation is still the same. You can sense we’re just mentally sharp.”
Therein lies the difference that will just maybe make this time different.
After an earned week off, the Chargers will give it yet another try in the playoffs with a home game Jan. 17 at Qualcomm Stadium.
It will be their fourth straight playoff appearance, fifth in the past six years and their 14th time in the postseason since winning the 1963 AFL Championship.
It’s the recent history that weighs heavily on a team that has won so many regular-season games and yet fallen short of the ultimate goal.
The Chargers are one of just two teams, along with Indianapolis, to have reached the postseason four straight seasons.
The Colts have their Super Bowl, and the Chargers believe they can follow the suit of Indianapolis, which went to the playoffs five consecutive seasons before winning its championship on the sixth try, after 2006.
The Colts said after that title that their getting there was a process. If the Chargers are celebrating amid blue and gold confetti, passing around the Lombardi Trophy come Feb. 7, they will voice something similar.
“We have a lot of guys who have been in the playoffs and not only been in the playoffs, but won games and won close games,” head coach Norv Turner said yesterday. “They’ve experienced that, and they’ve experienced the other side of it. I do know our guys understand it can end real fast if you don’t go out and do the things you’re capable of doing.”
Especially should the New England Patriots beat the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday and come to San Diego the next weekend, there will be much rehashing in the coming weeks of what happened following the 2006 regular season.
After the Chargers won 10 in a row to finish with an AFC-best 14-2 record, the Patriots came to Qualcomm Stadium and beat the rusty/overwhelmed Chargers 24-21.
“This is a totally different team,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “The guys who were here, yes, we remember it. Yes, we know we made some plays we can’t make and win, but this is a totally different team with a totally different approach and totally different mentality. We’re a long way from that game.”
It seems so. But they are a long way from that game in part because of that game.
Where the Chargers had 21 players who had never been in the playoffs that year, including Rivers, Marcus McNeill and Shawne Merriman, they have 12 playoff rookies this season. Twenty-four current Chargers played in that loss to the Patriots.
The way Rivers puts it is that the Chargers “have been through ups and downs and seen about everything we can see.”
Asked about a consistent focus that seemed to carry them through this season — from a 2-3 start to 11 straight victories to finish it — veteran Chargers reached back to 2004.
That year, the Chargers went to the playoffs for the first time in almost a decade. They lost in the first round. Amid high expectations they went 9-7 and missed the playoffs the next season. Then came ’06, after which Marty Schottenheimer was fired.
The Chargers began 1-3 under Turner but won eight straight en route to the AFC Championship Game, where they lost to New England after the 2007 season. Last season, four December wins overcame a 4-8 start and got the Chargers into the playoffs, where they won a game before losing to Pittsburgh, the eventual Super Bowl champion.
“Enough is enough” is sort of the mantra.
“You get to a certain point,” cornerback Quentin Jammer said. “You get to the playoffs, then have a year you don’t go, then go out in the first round, get to the playoffs the next year and get further, then get to playoffs and don’t make it as far as you did the previous year. Guys get fed up, and we’re going to do whatever needs to be done.”
Certainly, this is a talented team. And some skepticism must remain after so many early endings and a team having posed before as a mature group.
But these Chargers talk less, practice with more precision and appear unfazed by the downs and, especially, the ups of a season.
“The one-week-at-a-time mentality we have is more than we’ve had in the past,” running back LaDainian Tomlinson said recently. “It’s the experience. Guys have played a lot of football games.”
In 2006, with the football world talking about how great the Chargers were and 11 of them headed to the Pro Bowl, players were talking Super Bowl by Christmas.
There is no such talk now. Too many lessons learned.
“I hate to say we weren’t as focused back then,” Rivers said. “But maybe there is some truth to it, that you grow from all that. Maybe all our emotions and experience and everything is channeled in the right area. Maybe that’s why we got through 2-3 and won 11 in a row and are here now.”