SAN DIEGO -- While Pro Bowler Antonio Gates rehabbed his
dislocated left big toe, All-Pro fullback Lorenzo Neal returned to
practice for the San Diego Chargers exactly one month after
breaking his lower left leg.
It appeared Wednesday that Neal has a better chance than Gates
of suiting up for the Chargers in their divisional-round playoff
game Sunday at Indianapolis.
Gates dislocated his left big toe late in the second quarter of
Sunday's 17-6 wild-card win against Tennessee and didn't return. He
wasn't available to the media after practice.
"We're getting Antonio ready to play," coach Norv Turner said.
"He's making progress, he's going through all his treatments and
all those things. We'll see where he's at later in the week. He's
making good progress. I have hope that he'll be able to play."
If Gates can't play, he'll be replaced by
Gates was San Diego's leading receiver for the fourth straight
season, with 75 catches for 984 yards and nine touchdowns.
LaDainian Tomlinson, the two-time NFL rushing champion and
unanimous pick to the All-Pro team, knows what it will mean if
Gates can't go.
"Well, it's going to make it vital that we get it started if
Antonio is not able to go, because obviously we're losing a
weapon," Tomlinson said. "Antonio attracts a lot of attention.
And so not having him, then a lot of attention is going to go
moreso on the running game. And so it's just going to make it that
much more important to establish it."
Turner acknowledged that losing Gates would put more pressure on
the rest of the team.
"The one thing we don't lose is the threat of the run," Turner
said. "And that helps us a great deal. We just have to balance it
out with our personnel groupings if he can't play, and see if we
can pick up some of the things he brings to us from other people."
Gates has missed only two starts since becoming a regular midway
through his rookie season in 2003. One was the regular-season
finale in 2004, when he and other key players were rested before
the playoffs. The other was in 2005, when general manager A.J.
Smith suspended him for two exhibition games and the season opener
for missing a team-imposed deadline to settle a contract impasse.
Neal, one of Tomlinson's key blockers, returned to practice for
the first time since breaking his left leg at Tennessee on Dec. 9.
He was named to the All-Pro team earlier in the day.
"Today was just one of those days where I wanted to get my feet
back under me and get my timing back and just go out there and
execute and try to minimize my mental mistakes," Neal said.
The fullback said he's not going to play if he can't contribute.
"I feel that if I go out there on the field, I'm not holding
back. I'm going to pull the trigger," he said.
Tomlinson was excited to see Neal back.
"It was good to get him back," Tomlinson said. "We've missed
him, to say the least. And just having him back out there, there
was almost disbelief just seeing him out there. A lot of people
went over messing with him, 'Who's the new guy? Who's the new guy?
Oh, Lorenzo's back.' We're happy to have him back."