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Healthy Tomlinson needs to find old form

LaDainian Tomlinson #21 of the New York Jets

LaDainian Tomlinson #21 of the New York Jets runs the ball in the first half against Jared Allen #69 of the Minnesota Vikings at New Meadowlands Stadium. (Oct. 11, 2010) Credit: Getty Images


When Hall of Fame voters convene five years after LaDainian Tomlinson decides to retire, there will be very little debate about whether the running back is deserving of pro football's highest honor. With his yardage total at 13,404 and counting, and his touchdowns at 159 and still going, Tomlinson in all likelihood will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

But for all his regular-season brilliance, there is a blight on the 31-year-old running back's resume, and it will stay there unless something changes in the coming days. Or, if the Jets are fortunate, the coming weeks.

Tomlinson's run of eight straight seasons of more than 1,000 rushing yards is one of the best in NFL history, but his run of playoff performances is much less spectacular. In fact, it is downright mediocre.

In seven playoff games, Tomlinson has only one 100-yard rushing game and four touchdowns. In his last playoff appearance, he was held to 24 rushing yards on 12 attempts by the team he now plays for. The Jets beat Tomlinson's Chargers, 17-14, in last year's divisional round.

Injury and ineffectiveness have conspired against Tomlinson in the postseason, and he hopes to avoid both as the Jets begin their quest for a Super Bowl in Saturday night's first-round matchup against the Colts in Indianapolis.

"He's healthy, and I think that's where it starts," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "He's ready to play great."

Tomlinson needs to play great to give the Jets a chance to win. For all the pressure on quarterback Mark Sanchez to make plays with his arm, it's incumbent upon Tomlinson and backfield mate Shonn Greene to establish the run against a Colts team that generally has struggled in that area.

There are no excuses this time. Not only did Tomlinson make it through the entire season without an injury, but he's coming off a week's rest after agreeing with Ryan that he not play in last week's meaningless regular-season finale against the Bills.

"I've been healthy all year, and with a week off, I feel even fresher," he said. "I'm excited about that. I look forward to the opportunity."

Tomlinson, who finished the regular season with 914 rushing yards, passed up a chance to reach 1,000 by sitting out against the Bills. He knows the importance of what happens now supersedes another 1,000-yard season. It's about the ring and a chance to play at a Hall of Fame level after producing mostly postseason disappointment.

"This is the time of year I look forward to, and any time you have an opportunity like this, it doesn't come around often," he said. "Who knows when it's going to come around again, or if it ever will? I'm going to try to do everything I can to do my part to take advantage of it."

Tomlinson performed admirably during the regular season, especially early on, when he beat out Greene, who entered training camp as the starter. But after rushing for 435 yards and three touchdowns in his first five games, Tomlinson ran for only 479 yards and three touchdowns in the next 10. He never rushed for more than 57 yards in any game after the quick start, and he had only one 100-yard game all season.

A sign that he's wearing down? That's part of it. There's also the re-emergence of Greene, who was used more often down the stretch the way he was after last year's slow start. But now's the time when Tomlinson needs to be the L.T. of old. He needs to be the dual-purpose back who can slash his way through the line for big gains and take those short swing passes and churn out yardage.

Tomlinson needs to put all those other playoff disappointments behind him and start to match his regular-season brilliance with some postseason greatness.

"I really think it's important for me to perform well," he said. "This is what you play for. This is why you work so hard in the offseason, why you come to training camp. This is what you play for as a football player, this time of year. You don't get these chances very often."

That's why Tomlinson needs to make the most of this one. He knows there might not be another.

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