Run, L.T., Run

Chargers fans hoped their team would still be in the tournament at this point. With that possibility long since extinguished, there is only one reason left to watch the playoffs: to cheer on LaDainian Tomlinson in his quest for his first Super Bowl ring.

LaDainian Tomlinson is a polarizing figure for Chargers fans. On one hand, people wanted him to succeed this season, if only because he brought so much success to San Diego during his nine years in blue and gold. On the other hand, Bolts backers hoped A.J. Smith was correct in his assessment that the running game would be better off without a 31-year-old workhorse.

At the end of the regular season, both parties were right. In his first season with the New York Jets, Tomlinson rushed for nearly 200 yards more than in 2009 (914 to 730), boosting his per-carry average by almost a full yard. He also logged more than 50 receptions, something he did during each of his first eight seasons before netting just 20 catches in 2009.

The Chargers also fared better with Tomlinson gone, finishing No. 15 in rushing offense after ranking No. 31 in 2009. Mike Tolbert punched in 11 TDs and rookie Ryan Mathews ended with a better rushing average than Tomlinson (4.3 to 4.2).

RB LaDainian Tomlinson
It would be a classic win-win if not for the hurt feelings on both sides of the fence. Tomlinson was hurt after being phased out of the offense in his final seasons in San Diego, ending with a humbling 2009 campaign in which he was clearly a lame duck. The Chargers were hurt the always-classy Tomlinson took shots at their offensive line and fullbacks as soon as he left town.

Now, San Diego's season is over and Tomlinson is in the AFC Championship Game for the second time in his career. The last time was in 2007, when a knee injury limited Tomlinson to just two carries before he tapped out. He spent most of the game sulking on the sidelines, the first time his always-sterling reputation began to experience some tarnish.

That game is in the past, though, which is exactly where this entire divide belongs. The simple fact is the best player in Chargers history is one win away from reaching the Super Bowl for the first time. All he has to do is beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, the same team that ended San Diego's playoff push after the 2008 season.

If Tomlinson's Jets reach the Super Bowl, their path will have included road victories over the Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and Steelers, the three winningest teams in the AFC over the last decade. The fourth winningest team is the Chargers, a fact that is only true because Tomlinson willed this team out of the depths in 2004 and spearheaded an incredible rebuilding effort.

For that reason -- and because of his countless charitable contributions to the San Diego community -- Chargers fans should chant L.T. as he takes to Heinz Field. He is no longer wearing the Chargers colors, but he will always be a Charger.

Should Bolts fans root for LaDainian Tomlinson? Discuss in the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and also a long-time contributor to the network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. You can see more of his updates by following him on Twitter.

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