SAN DIEGO -- There's smash-mouth, and then there's Shawne Merriman's mouth.
Today's playoff game between the Tennessee Titans and San Diego Chargers wouldn't be such an eagerly anticipated grudge match without the two.
On Dec. 9 at Nashville, the Titans dominated the Chargers for three quarters in a virtual slugfest. The Chargers rallied from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to force overtime, then won it 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 he handed off, sending the QB to the sideline for a spell. Merriman hobbled off the field with a sprained left knee later in the period, the result of what he claimed was a retaliatory "hit" ordered by Titans coach Jeff Fisher.
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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," Bulluck said. "They need to retract that statement. We're coming to see them (today)."
Even though it's a beat-up bunch of Titans who will travel west to what could be a wet and wild Qualcomm Stadium, the Chargers are trying to hold their tongues going into this one.
"We know what we're up against," said Tomlinson, the two-time NFL rushing champion who is 0-2 in the playoffs in his brilliant career. "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 even 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 12½ 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 here, let it get away from us and we feel like we should've won the game. I think we're looking forward to the rematch."