Because he is, at this particular slice in time, both the best and most valuable player in the NFL, LaDainian Tomlinson has the unwelcome chore of answering questions about his greatness on a daily basis. Ask LT about his team, however, and the sixth-year halfback's eyes light up like a teenage boy's during a stroll down Black's Beach.
On Wednesday, as we sat outside, across from the Chargers' practice field on a typically gorgeous day in San Diego, I asked Tomlinson to compare his current team, which is tied with Indy atop the AFC standings at 10-2, with the 2004 version, which went 12-4 to win the AFC West after a 4-12 campaign in '03.
He answered the same way he hits the hole -- without hesitation.
"This season has been more magical," Tomlinson said. "Two years ago, we were playing good football, and it was great that we were able to turn things around so fast. But this year, just the way we have won games -- coming back to win on the road down 21 and 17 points two weeks in a row -- it's more magical. And because we have a lot of guys who were here two years ago, we're more prepared for this and we have a sense that the magic is going to continue."
Nobody really knew what to make of the 2004 Chargers, who sputtered to a 1-2 start before quarterback Drew Brees' surprising revival vaulted them to an unlikely division crown. But with Pittsburgh (15-1) and eventual Super Bowl champion New England (14-2) earning first-round byes, San Diego wasn't viewed as a leading contender -- a perception the Chargers validated by losing at home, 20-17 in overtime to the Jets, in the first round of the playoffs.
There's no guarantee that won't happen again; when your head coach has a career postseason record (5-12) like Marty Schottenheimer's, how can there be? But as Tomlinson hinted, there is a sense inside the Chargers' Murphy Canyon facility that something more momentous is happening this time, a force that won't be so easy to derail.
That all starts with LT, of course -- and his impact extends far beyond the ostentatious numbers. In San Diego's times of vulnerability, with star pass rusher Shawne Merriman serving a four-game suspension (for violating the league's substance abuse policy) and quarterback Philip Rivers navigating his way through his first NFL season as a starter, it was LT who guided the Chargers home.
Down three touchdowns in Cincinnati on Nov. 12? San Diego fought back to take the lead, as Tomlinson scored two TDs in five seconds (he had four overall, three in the second half), and rolled to a 49-41 victory. Trailing 24-7 early in the third quarter at Denver after Darrent Williams picked off a Rivers pass and ran 31 yards for a score? LT put up his second, third and fourth touchdowns of the game, including a breathtaking 51-yard burst off a screen pass, and the Chargers won 35-27.