SAN DIEGO (AP) -The lasting image of the San Diego Chargers' season was star running back LaDainian Tomlinson on the sideline, huddled in a parka on a frigid afternoon in New England and his face hidden behind his tinted facemask.
The Chargers had reached the AFC championship game by upsetting the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts, yet their best player couldn't do anything to help them against the then-perfect Patriots.
Tomlinson carried only twice before aggravating his sprained left knee and being forced out of the game. What he didn't know at the time was that the Chargers' little white lie about the severity of his injury led to his otherwise impeccable reputation taking a hit from coast to coast.
Fast forward seven months to the heat of a San Diego summer, and Tomlinson and the Chargers are eager to advance deeper than they did last year.
The Chargers are considered Super Bowl-caliber yet again, and this time they'd like to prove it.
Tomlinson, the face of the franchise, seems more determined than ever.
Early in the second quarter of the AFC championship, it was announced in the press box that Tomlinson had a ``sore knee'' and ``can return'' - a not-so-isolated shenanigan practiced in the NFL. Pundits, including Deion Sanders, started criticizing him, especially since quarterback Philip Rivers was gamely playing on an injured right knee that required reconstructive surgery a few days later.
Tomlinson, a two-time NFL rushing champion plans to use the episode as motivation as he enters his eighth NFL season.
``Most definitely. But that's all a part of it. As athletes and competitors ... we look for stuff like that. I know I do,'' he said. ``That's something that has always pushed me throughout my whole career, not just the NFL but dating back to college and high school.''
The Chargers certainly are motivated after winning in the postseason for the first time in 13 years.
Generally considered to have the most-talented roster in the NFL, now it's a matter of the Chargers taking advantage of their window of opportunity.
``I know we've still got a great group of guys that play at a high level. We've been fortunate enough to keep our core players. So we've just got to keep pushing at it,'' Tomlinson said.
They plan to be a bit more modest about discussing their goals, apparently having learned the difference between hype and reality.
``There was so much hype last year, and so much expectation, and all training camp it was 'Super Bowl,' and we weren't afraid to talk about it,'' Rivers said.
``I fell in that trap, too. Not that we weren't focused, but it seemed like all the focus was on the ultimate goal. Subconsciously, we took some things for granted, maybe. Maybe we overlooked the meat and potatoes part of the deal, you know what I mean? We were looking ahead for the dessert.''
Last summer, the Chargers overlooked their playoff pratfall against New England and focused instead on their 14-2 regular-season record from 2006.
Although they did end up making it all the way to the AFC championship game, things sure looked bleak when they started 1-3 and 5-5 in Norv Turner's first season as coach.
Outside linebacker Shawne Merriman doesn't buy the talk in some circles that it's the Chargers' turn to win it all.
``To tell you the truth, I don't think it's anybody's turn,'' Merriman said. ``You know, it's how hard you work for it, and in our case, finishing up how we want to finish. They always say the team that almost gets there last year should win it the next year. That's all good, but for us, we just look at it as something we've got to do.''
Expectations could be higher for the Chargers this year, provided that Rivers, Tomlinson, tight end Antonio Gates and center Nick Hardwick all come back strong from injuries.
Rivers thinks the Chargers can handle the expectations better this year.
``Again, we have an understanding of what it really takes,'' he said. ``We didn't know what it takes to play in an AFC championship game. We didn't know what it's like to go on the road and knock off the defending champs. But now we know, so when all these things come arising again, which we hope we get the opportunity again, then we've actually been through it. We're not just feeling our way through it. You know what it's going to be like. We'll have a clue.''
Rivers said his knee ``feels better than I could have imagined it. It's going to be really key to keep staying on top of it. I've been told by many people that know the deal that it's going to get tired if you let it. It's the strength. It'll run out of gas quicker. Just keep filling up the tank.''
Tomlinson said his knee is fine, but Hardwick (foot surgery) was on the active-physically unable to perform list.
Gates was taken off the PUP list earlier this week and participated in parts of practice after passing a physical. He had surgery nearly six months ago to repair a tear in the plantar plate of his left foot. He injured his left big toe during a playoff game against Tennessee last January.
He said his prospects look good for playing in the regular-season opener against the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 7, but only if he doesn't have any setbacks with his foot.
``I hate to look so far down the road because this is a tricky situation,'' Gates said. ``It's one of those things where it feels really good one day and you come back another day and it's sore.
``It's one of those injuries where you have to really monitor and make sure I'm not overdoing it.''

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