LT looking forward to another shot at Pats

San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, left, running

San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, left, running back LaDainian Tomlinson, second from right, and fullback Andrew Pinnock, right, sit on the bench during the third quarter of the AFC Championship football game against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass. (Jan. 20, 2008) (Credit: AP)

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - The visual remains as clear as a high-definition snapshot.

LaDainian Tomlinson was seated on the visitors' bench at Gillette Stadium that cold January evening in 2008, wearing his helmet with that dark, "Darth Vader"-type visor. The running back had a hood over his head, and he looked despondent any time the television cameras panned his way as he helplessly watched the undefeated Patriots knock off the Chargers, vaulting themselves into Super Bowl XLII.

Tomlinson carried the ball twice for 5 yards that game, posting one reception for a measly yard before having to take a seat. He just couldn't go, and it ticked him off.

"It was the most frustrating thing I've ever been through in my career," Tomlinson said yesterday. "It was a long shot going into the game. With a sprained MCL, I told my guys, 'I'm going to give you everything I have.' So that was frustrating, that at the biggest time that you could possibly play a game, I couldn't play. So now it seems like I get a chance to redeem myself.

"Having this opportunity," he added with a laugh, "my hair is going to be on fire."

As good a career as Tomlinson has had - he is second on the NFL's all-time list with 144 rushing touchdowns and sixth with 13,404 rushing yards - his lack of postseason productivity sticks out like a hitchhiker's thumb.

Before joining the Jets, the future Hall of Famer had only 327 yards and four touchdowns on 96 carries in seven playoff games, including a modest 24-yard effort last year against the Jets. He also had only 157 yards on 19 receptions.

"If you think about it, the only time L.T. has really been healthy in the playoffs was in 2006," said Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who also was Tomlinson's teammate with the Chargers. "We lost that game against New England. He was injured. He sprained his knee in the divisional game in Indy and he tried to go out there and play and it was hurting him too bad. A guy that had a second-degree sprain of his knee - you can't come back in a week. But he tried his best.

"Being at 100 percent now, you will see a different L.T. You saw it last week - the explosion that he had and things like that. I know he's definitely looking forward to this point and just going out and playing football because he's finally healthy."

Tomlinson showed that Saturday night against the Colts, running for 82 yards and two touchdowns. He also scampered 23 yards for the longest run of his postseason career, a satisfying feat for the 31-year-old.

Still, he knows that performance means nothing now. The critics continue to lurk.

"I think it goes right over into something that really I had to prove this year - being able to stay healthy a full season and proving that I can still play at a high level," Tomlinson said. "There's no difference now in the playoffs and I still feel the same way - motivated, excited and can't wait for the opportunity."

Especially to go up against a Patriots squad that could be considered his nemesis, the very team that stomped on the Chargers' midfield logo after their AFC divisional win four years ago. There's just something about playing the Patriots that lights a significant spark inside Tomlinson, all because they remind him of the way things were two decades ago for the team he grew up rooting for in his native Texas.

"I think over the years, the Super Bowls they've won, they have been the dynasty," Tomlinson said. "It's kind of like the Cowboys in the '90s. To me, the Patriots in 2000 have been that dynasty. So any time you play a group like these guys, you get fired up."

Of course, Tomlinson might not get many more opportunities to stick it to the Patriots. He knows he doesn't have a whole lot of years left and that the tread on his tires is slowly nearing the steel wiring, soon to be exposed. Not even this season's rejuvenation is going to alter his plans for the future, which he's not ready to unveil yet.

"I've always had a number in my mind how long I wanted to play," he said, "and when that number gets there, I'm done."

What's that number?

"I can't tell you," he said.

The only number he's focused on at the moment is three: the number of wins the Jets still need to hoist that Lombardi Trophy in Texas next month.

"More than anything, L.T. just wants another chance at winning a ring and he knows that this is the next opponent," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "He's a competitor, and he knows this is another chance for him to get one step closer to the Super Bowl."

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