Playoff run starts now

The San Diego Chargers know how crucial the next few games are and understand that hitting their stride now will pay off big dividends in January. The onus may be on the defense this week to keep the ball rolling.

The Chargers stand at the halfway mark appreciative of their 6-2 record and holding a share of the AFC West lead.

But up ahead is a pair of difficult games in two difficult places to play.

"We got two big games coming up on the road -- Cincinnati and Denver -- and I tell you what: we can't do that against good teams on the road," LaDainian Tomlinson said.

The Chargers' Pro Bowl running back was talking of the team's shoddy performance in Sunday's 32-25 win over the visiting Cleveland Browns. The Chargers committed a season-high 12 penalties and didn't put the lowly Browns away until midway through the fourth quarter.

They did grab their second straight victory thanks to Tomlinson rushing for three touchdowns and 172 yards.

"I think we have a real good team," Tomlinson said. "We're at the midpoint of the season; good teams and great teams start playing good consistent football right now. We've got to get on a run and we've got to understand that."

Veteran Lorenzo Neal, who started his 200th straight game Sunday, is well aware of what lies ahead.

"These next two games are very important; we've got to find a way to win," he said. "These are two games that if we want to get to where we want to get and have the playoff games in San Diego, for a week or two we have to find some kind of way as a team, collectively, to go to hostile environments and win. That's what good teams do."

The Chargers have had their troubles away from Qualcomm Stadium, where they are 4-0. They got too conservative in the second half of a 16-13 loss at Baltimore, and then fell in Kansas City, 30-27, after falling behind 20-6.

Their road wins came at Oakland and San Francisco.

"After the next two weeks I'll tell you how much we have grown," Neal said, "Because we are playing two good teams and if we are a good team, we have to find a way to win."

The Chargers will tackle this demanding stretch without Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman. He's not eligible to return until Dec. 3 in Buffalo after cheating the NFL's steroid policy.

There are also other injuries in the linebacking corps which is forcing backups into the lineup. Those second-stringers performed well in the win over the Browns.

"Obviously we have some injuries and we got to get some guys healthy," said Tomlinson, who has rushed for 355 yards and scored six touchdowns in his last two games. "But we have had guys that stepped up to take place of the guys hurt."

Safety Marlon McCree said the real pain would come if getting overconfident. But he doesn't anticipate that happening.

"It's going to be hard to find a team to beat us, we know that," he said. "But we have to stay humble."

Added CB Quentin Jammer: "These are the type of games we look forward to play and Cincinnati has got one of the top receiving duos in the league. And then that Denver defense is a nasty defense; there offense is kind of struggling but the defense is something awful. It's time to step up or shut up."

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