SAN DIEGO (AP) -LaDainian Tomlinson can still run the football. Shawne Merriman can indeed find his way to the quarterback. Help has arrived at wide receiver.
The defending AFC West champion San Diego Chargers pulled into their bye week with their confidence restored, having won consecutive games in the wake of a shocking three-game losing streak that left players, coaches and fans wondering what was going on.
It turns out the Bolts learned the hard way that expectations and reality can be radically different.
``We're 3-3 and obviously we'd rather be 6-0 at this point,'' All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates said. ``That's the expectation at the beginning of the season, but that didn't happen. But you know, we're preparing to go the playoffs, and that's still a situation where we can accomplish that. I think that's the most important part about it, is that our whole goal is to go to the playoffs and win a Super Bowl.''
Of course, New England and Indianapolis are expected to have a say in that. But defending their division title would be a nice start for the Chargers, who haven't reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 1994-95 under Bobby Ross.
The Chargers were embarrassed 38-14 at New England on Sept. 16, their second loss to the Patriots in a span of three games. The other loss, of course, was San Diego's playoff pratfall after it finished last season with an NFL-best 14-2 record under Marty Schottenheimer.
During San Diego's three-game losing streak, some fans no doubt were thinking their worst fears were coming true: new coach Norv Turner was indeed going to underachieve with a team loaded with 11 Pro Bowlers and five All-Pros.
After Schottenheimer was fired in February due to front-office friction, Turner came aboard with a reputation as an offensive mastermind, but with a dismal record as an NFL head coach - it's now 61-85-1.
``The coaching staff had to adjust to the players,'' Gates said. ``Training camp is part of it; playing in the games is another part of it. I think we've actually arrived and got over that hump and now we're on pace to play San Diego Chargers football that we are capable of playing and that we expect to play.''
Gates already has 43 catches for 547 yards and three touchdowns, and is on pace to break Tony Gonzalez's single-season record for catches by a tight end, 102 set in 2004.
After struggling early against eight-man fronts, Tomlinson looked more like himself last week in rushing for 198 yards and four touchdowns in a 28-14 win over Oakland.
The reigning league MVP has moved into a tie with Jim Brown for fourth on the all-time TDs rushing list with 106. Including 12 TD catches, Tomlinson has 118 total career touchdowns, 10th on the all-time list. Dallas' Terrell Owens is ninth with 120.
The Chargers bolstered their young, undistinguished wide receiving corps on Tuesday when they acquired Chris Chambers in a trade with Miami, giving Philip Rivers a veteran wideout to work with. Chambers takes the spot of Eric Parker, who broke his right big toe in June and will spend the rest of the season on injured reserve.
``I really think that it's a blessing to have a guy that's a proven guy in this league,'' Gates said. ``I had a chance to play with him in the Pro Bowl one year. He's a spectacular playmaker. That makes it more interesting.''
Part of the problem early was that Rivers committed 10 turnovers, including seven interceptions.
On defense, the Chargers looked more like themselves last week, when they sacked Daunte Culpepper six times and had three takeaways. Merriman had 2 1/2 sacks and fellow outside linebacker Shaun Phillips had two, plus a forced fumble.
Some fans were ready to issue an all-points bulletin for the defense, which didn't seem as aggressive under new coordinator Ted Cottrell as it did under Wade Phillips, who bolted to become Dallas Cowboys coach.
Merriman, though, discounted criticism of the defense's play, including the way he and Phillips were being used.
``People who know football really understand that my game hasn't changed, his game hasn't changed, nobody's game's changed,'' said Merriman, a two-time All-Pro. ``Offensive coordinators obviously are getting smarter and getting rid of the ball quick. No matter how good you are, no matter how many sacks you get, if you can't get there when the ball is thrown, you can only hope to turn and go make a play after it's thrown.''
Merriman and Phillips have 5 1/2 sacks apiece. Merriman had a league-high 17 sacks in 12 games last year. He also served a four-game suspension after testing positive for steroids.
Winning two games going into the bye week was certainly better than the alternative.
``It's more of a refreshing feel because it's not where we want to be, but it's a good start to where we need to end up. That said, we go and take this break, get healthy again and come back out ready to play,'' Merriman said.

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