A few weeks ago I wrote there was no reason to panic over the Chargers’ slow start, and that the true gauge of the Bolts’ team chemistry was reading running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

Tomlinson was the one who stood up a year ago and got his teammates to follow then-new head coach Norv Turner’s message that the team could either sulk or keep working.

The Chargers won their final six games to win the AFC West title and advanced with two playoff wins to the AFC Championship game before falling to the New England Patriots.

Well, this year the Chargers sulked more than they went to work.

Tomlinson was part of the sulking as he openly questioned game plans that didn’t emphasize running the ball.

The trouble is, LT wants the Chargers to play power football and they’re not a power football team anymore.

That’s not to blame LT for the Chargers falling to 4-8 with Sunday’s

22-16 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on a day former Bolts back Michael

Turner rushed 31 times for 120 yards for the Falcons.

There isn’t a superstar player in the NFL more honest or more humble than Tomlinson. But this year the confluence of his honesty and the reality that the Chargers aren’t a power football team meant the team couldn’t duplicate last year’s turnaround.

The Chargers long ago needed to be more creative with their passing game.

Yes, the team’s defense has failed them this year without Shawne

Merriman providing a pass rush and wreaking general havoc, but the defense is still better than the Denver Broncos’ soft unit. The

Broncos, though, have overcome their deficiencies by unleashing their passing game with Jay Cutler.

The Chargers now trail the Broncos by three games with four to play after the Broncos improbably won at the New York Jets, proving once again there is no team (not even Tennessee) to fear in the AFC playoffs.

If the Chargers win three straight and the Broncos lose two of three, then the regular-season finale between the Broncos and Chargers on Dec.

28 will decide the AFC West title.

It’s not hard to imagine the Broncos losing two of their next three against Kansas City, Carolina and Buffalo. But it’s now harder to imagine a Chargers team clinging to playing power football winning three straight.

The irony, though, is a wider open Chargers’ passing game that utilized

LT, Darren Sproles and Jacob Hester in space out of the backfield would have eventually opened up the running game.

— TOM SHANAHAN

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