Bad feelings began early in AFC matchup

Associated Press
Published January 6, 2008

SAN DIEGO -- There's smashmouth, and then there's Shawne Merriman's mouth.

Today's playoff game between the Titans and Chargers wouldn't be such an eagerly anticipated grudge match without the two.

Dec.9 at Nashville, Tennessee dominated San Diego for three quarters. Then the Chargers rallied from 14 down in the fourth quarter to force overtime and won 23-17 on LaDainian Tomlinson's 16-yard touchdown run.

In the second quarter, Merriman, San Diego's three-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker, collided with Tennessee's Vince Young after Young handed off, sending the QB to the sideline for a spell. Merriman hobbled off with a sprained left knee later in the quarter after what he called a retaliatory "hit" ordered by Titans coach Jeff Fisher.

Merriman said his collision with Young was accidental. While lauding his teammates for coming back, Merriman took a swipe at the Titans.

"We're going to fight you to the end, regardless of what they do. There were a bunch of cheap shots out there, but they can get some cheap shots on the sofa at home while they watch us," Merriman said.

So imagine the reaction when the Titans (10-6) squeaked into the playoffs as the No.6 seed, earning a trip to face AFC West champion San Diego (11-5).

"If people missed the first one that we played, tune in," Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck said after learning of the rematch.

"Comments were made after that game that we would see them from our couch watching the playoffs," he said. "They need to retract that statement."

The Chargers are trying to hold their tongues going into this one at Qualcomm Stadium.

"We know what we're up against," said Tomlinson, the two-time league rushing champ. "It's not going to come easy."

Merriman, an excitable sort known as "Lights Out" for his punishing hits, has softened his stance about the "hit." Fisher wrote it off to emotions, and said he voted for Merriman for the Pro Bowl.

"It's going to be a physical game, and not because of what happened the first time," said Merriman, who led the Chargers with 12-1/2 sacks. "It's going to be a physical game because whoever loses goes home. I think there's more at stake now than it was four games ago."

And, he added, "We're going to all give each other hugs before the game starts."

But they're still going to try to knock off each other's heads.

"It's definitely going to be an emotionally charged game," Titans Pro Bowl defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. "We feel like we let it slip when they were (in Nashville), let it get away from us and we feel like we should've won the game."

The league fined four players a total of $32,500 after the Dec.9 game, including Titans linemen Kevin Mawae and David Stewart for a late hit on Merriman.

Young reinjured his quad in Sunday night's win at Indianapolis and the team will decide at gametime whether he'll start. The Chargers spent the week preparing for both Young and his backup, Kerry Collins.