SAN DIEGO (AP) -With meaningless exhibition games finally out of the way, it's time for LaDainian Tomlinson to get back to work.
More than seven months after limping off the field during the AFC championship game, Tomlinson will return to action when his San Diego Chargers host the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
``I'm looking forward to it,'' Tomlinson said Monday. ``It seems like it's been a long preseason. This probably has been the longest preseason I've been a part of. Feels like it, anyway. I'm excited about this week and excited to get back on the football field.''
As usual, Tomlinson was reduced to being a sideline spectator during the exhibition games to avoid the risk of injury. This year there was the additional factor that he was coming off a knee injury that forced him out of San Diego's 21-12 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC title game.
Not being able to finish that game and then spending a good deal of the offseason rehabbing his sprained left knee was one thing. Falling one win short of going to the Super Bowl was another, and that seems to be driving Tomlinson more than anything else.
Tomlinson said he has just one goal this, his eighth NFL season: ``To win a championship. That's the only thing you guys are going to hear me talk about all year.''
The Chargers, and certainly their championship-starved fans, feel they're loaded for a Super Bowl run.
``I'm just excited at the kind of team we have and the opportunity we have, and doing something special,'' said Tomlinson, the two-time defending NFL rushing champion and the 2006 league MVP. ``That's more than anything. It's not really about me so much. I used that as motivation to push me and the things I want to do individually. As far as the team, this is a special team, I feel like.''
Tomlinson said his knee is ``100 percent ready to go'' and that he has no concerns. ``If I had a setback, that would be a concern, but I haven't had one,'' he said.
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``If you look at the past, some games I've had really good first games when I haven't played in the preseason, and some games I haven't,'' he said. ``It just depends on the team and the way they approach the first game.''
Tomlinson has faced the Panthers only once, in 2004. He had 47 yards and one touchdown on 17 carries in a 17-6 victory.
Quarterback Philip Rivers, who's bounced back from offseason knee surgery, is looking forward to having both Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates back in the lineup. Gates injured his left big toe during a playoff win against Tennessee and later had surgery to repair a tear in the plantar plate.
``It's always fun when you get everybody out there that first week,'' Rivers said. ``Obviously L.T. hasn't seen any action, but there are others who haven't, either. It'll be fun to see No. 85 out there as a target.''
Gates said he knew in July that he'd be able to play in the season opener.
He's not 100 percent, ``but I'm definitely better than what I was,'' Gates said. ``The more I get out there, the more reps I get, the more I get used to it. That's all I can really do at this point, is just go out and play as hard as I can and let everything else take care of itself.''
Also Monday, the Chargers released fullback Andrew Pinnock and placed backup center Cory Withrow on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. To take their spots on the roster, San Diego signed tight end Kris Wilson and offensive lineman Kynan Forney. The Chargers needed a tight end after Scott Chandler sustained a season-ending toe injury in the exhibition finale Friday night in San Francisco.

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