By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008
FOXBOROUGH, Mass., Jan. 20 -- They tried to play down his absence, the fact LaDainian Tomlinson was standing on the sideline injured instead of carrying the ball in this AFC championship game. Coach Norv Turner said he wouldn't look back and play "what-if." Quarterback Philip Rivers said the team's approach to the red zone offense didn't change much with Michael Turner and Darren Sproles playing in Tomlinson's place.
But the fact is the Chargers failed to score a touchdown on any of three trips inside the Patriots 10-yard line in New England's 21-12 victory. In fact, San Diego's only points came on field goals.
Tomlinson, who rushed for 1,474 yards and 15 touchdown during the regular season, carried the ball from scrimmage twice Sunday for a total of five yards, caught one screen pass for one yard, and then left the field with a sprained medial collateral ligament.
"I just have to wait and see what happens," Tomlinson said afterward. "Hopefully with rest, it's not torn or anything, but it is an MCL, and hopefully with rest I'll be fine."
The Chargers certainly were not fine without Tomlinson, who is to San Diego's offense what Walter Payton was to the Chicago Bears, what Emmitt Smith was to the Dallas Cowboys.
Turner carried 17 times for 65 yards, and Sproles carried three times for 34 yards, including a 26-yard blast that was the long run of the day for either team. But it was in the red zone where the Chargers suffered most.
Asked how calling plays differed without Tomlinson, Rivers said, "Obviously, with [Tomlinson] in there, it is truly run or pass. You never really know [from a defensive standpoint]. You certainly have to be more choosy with [plays] if it's [Turner] and [Sproles], whereas with Tomlinson, any play can go. I think it was just a matter of execution. We had chances a couple of times, but we just didn't get it done."
Asked about the effect of Tomlinson's absence on his team, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said: "Of course, we worked on Turner and Sproles all week [in practice]. They have great depth at that position, and you saw those guys made great plays last week [in beating the Colts]. Tomlinson is a great player, and there's no question about his ability and the things he can do.
"But . . . we were prepared to defend all of them today."
Norv Turner bristled when a reporter tried to ask what the Chargers players thought of Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates playing through injuries while Tomlinson stood on the sideline.
"Don't get into that," Turner said. "That's the stupidest thing you could ask. The guy was not able to go. The doctors and trainers said he couldn't go."
Turner said Tomlinson did not practice Wednesday because of the same injury, took part in limited practice Thursday, then practiced Friday.
The play that may well define the game was Patriots linebacker Junior Seau's tackle on Michael Turner on third and one deep in New England territory with the Patriots leading 14-9. Instead of continuing on for a touchdown, which would have put the Chargers ahead, they had to settle for a field goal to get within 14-12.
The Chargers might not have been willing to say so in the locker room immediately afterward, but surely they will wonder what would have happened had Tomlinson been running the ball in that situation.