FLORHAM PARK, New Jersey (AP) — LaDainian Tomlinson stared out at the field from behind his dark visor, unable to help his team from his seat on the bench.
It was the AFC Championship game at the New England Patriots in 2008, and the San Diego Chargers running back's pride was hurting just as much as his left knee. Injured a week earlier at Indianapolis, he tried to push through the pain, but lasted just a few plays before heading to the sideline for good while the Chargers lost out on a Super Bowl appearance.
"It was a long shot going into the game with a sprained MCL. I told my guys, 'I'm going to give you everything I have,' but it wasn't much," the New York Jets running back recalled this week.
A lasting image from the Chargers' 21-12 loss at Gillette Stadium is of Tomlinson sitting, wrapped in an oversized jacket and his helmet still strapped onto his head.
"It was the most frustrating thing I've been through in my career," he said. "Now, it seems like I get a chance to redeem myself."
Three years later and healthy with the Jets, Tomlinson is again headed to Foxborough, Massachusetts for a playoff game — with a trip to the AFC Championship game on the line.
"Having this opportunity," Tomlinson said, smiling, "my hair's going to be on fire."
Last Saturday, Tomlinson had one of the best postseason games of his career, running for 82 yards and two touchdowns while helping the Jets beat the Indianapolis Colts 17-16.
"I feel good," he said. "Obviously, coming off a game like I had last week, it's motivation to continue."
The NFL's all-time sixth-leading rusher is no longer a youngster at 31 years old, and he's well aware that the chances to win a Super Bowl are quickly dwindling.
"This is what you play for, these opportunities," he said. "As you've heard many people say, this is why you lift all those weights in the offseason and training camp, to have the opportunity to do this."
After a bitter divorce from the Chargers last winter, Tomlinson had to battle the perception that he was finished. The Jets and the Minnesota Vikings were the only teams that showed serious interest in him, and Tomlinson chose New York knowing he had plenty to prove despite all the accolades and records.
He wasn't the electrifying L.T. of his prime, but he was plenty productive during the regular season. He led the team with 914 yards rushing, and his 23-yard run against the Colts last week was surprisingly the longest of his playoff career.
"I saw he's fresh, ready to go," coach Rex Ryan said. "When you saw the desire that he has, the passion he's running with, that's what I expect again this week."
And, Tomlinson will likely be a major factor in whether the Jets can get past the Patriots this time around.
Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who also played four seasons in San Diego with Tomlinson, said: "When you have someone like him on your team, you want to do all you can to try to make sure you get him to the ultimate dream of being in the Super Bowl and getting that ring."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.