SAN JOSE, Calif. - The San Diego Chargers have never been shy about expressing their feelings for the Patriots.
They've referred to them as "classless." Said their team motto is "if you're not cheating, you're not trying," and accused them of being dirty.
But the vitriolic rhetoric that has marked this rivalry seems to have dissipated, or at least it's under wraps, as the teams prepare to meet Sunday in San Diego, their fourth matchup in the last 21 months.
What has been a grudge match between two AFC heavyweights has reached the point of begrudging respect.
"I think it is," said Ellis Hobbs, who triggered Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson calling the Patriots "classless" following New England's playoff win in San Diego in January 2007 by doing a mocking version of Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman's "Lights Out" dance.
"Any time you can go out there and play as hard as we do from the New England Patriots' standpoint to the San Diego standpoint and for it to be a good game every time, it's almost forcing you . . . to bring your A game or you're going to get embarrassed out there. I think there is a big respect factor. As much trash-talking as either side does, there is a huge level of respect there for one another."
The most recent episode came last January, following the frigid AFC Championship game, a 21-12 Patriots victory at Gillette Stadium. San Diego center Nick Hardwick charged that Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour was a dirty player.
"Richard Seymour is the biggest [expletive] I've ever come across in football," said Hardwick at the time. "They've got 10 good football players on that team. He's cheap and dirty, and [the officials] just let him get away with it the whole time. They've got 10 great players, and when Jarvis Green is on the field they have 11 great players that compete how you're supposed to compete. But that Richard Seymour is the biggest [expletive] I've ever played."
Seymour said he didn't have a chance to talk to Hardwick about the comments, but he wasn't about to make any inflammatory remarks of his own.
"I don't have nothing to say to him," said Seymour. "I'll let my play do the talking for me, and you can talk in the media and do all of those things, but for us it's going out and executing and getting the win. It isn't about me. Obviously, you've got to win your individual matchups and we respect them as a football team, but we're going in to get a win."
Seymour even went on to say he forgave Hardwick for calling him a dirty player, although he hinted he might use it as motivation.
"Well, it wasn't true. I mean, you can't control what people say. I don't even try to get into what his thought process was," Seymour said. "I've forgiven him, and moved forward because I'm not going to be caught up by what someone else says or what someone else thinks. The people around me that are close to me, they know the type of person I am, and they know what I believe in. But I will be out there playing hard. I can tell you that much."
Tomlinson - who facetiously said last year prior to the Patriots' 38-14 regular-season victory over the Chargers, the Patriots' first game after being caught illegally filming signals, that New England's motto was "if you're not cheating, you're not trying" - said the Chargers have no right to talk.
He pointed out that the Patriots have had the last word in each of the last three meetings with wins.
Tomlinson said that with the Chargers sitting at 2-3, Sunday is just another game for San Diego, a big one it needs to win, whether the opponent is the Patriots or the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"We don't feel anything more or less about the Patriots than we do about a lot of other AFC teams that we play on a consistent basis," said Tomlinson. "You learn things about teams when you play them a bunch, and obviously we've played them a bunch.
"That's how Nick felt after that game. That doesn't mean he feels like Richard is a dirty player all the time. Maybe some things happened where he felt like that, but no, we don't feel like they're dirty players at all. They're football players. We see these guys in the offseason all the time, and there's no [lost love] at all. It's not like we don't want to talk to them when we see them. But during the game when we've got to play against them, we want to kick their butt just like they want to kick our butt."
Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who praised the gutsy performance of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers on a bum knee in last year's AFC title game and lauded Tomlinson, said it may be frustration that led to contemptuous actions.
"It's just been big games," said Bruschi. "And when it's a playoff victory and a playoff loss, the one team feels great because you get to move on, and the other team feels bad because your season is over. I think that's where it ends."
Ending the football feud was the theme yesterday for both teams, as they made like Aretha Franklin.
"I respect their players," said Bruschi. "I respect LaDainian Tomlinson. I respect their offensive line, [tight end] Antonio Gates, Philip Rivers. I think they're players that play hard and do the right things and they're playing good right now. I don't think it's bad blood. I think it's more like a mutual respect."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.