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Te’o starting to assert himself going into playoffs

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    New York Giants running back Peyton Hillis carries the ball into the end zone while San Diego Chargers linebacker Manti Te'o attempts to take the ball away on a 1-yard touchdown run during the second half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

SAN DIEGO >> Manti Te’o is ready for his first NFL playoff appearance.

He talks about not freezing, and it has nothing to do with the weather the San Diego Chargers could face in Cincinnati on Sunday.

He says he’s becoming the player he knows he can be.

The rookie linebacker had a season-high 11 tackles against Kansas City in the victory that ended the Chargers’ three-year playoff drought and propelled them into Sunday’s wild-card game against the Bengals, the last team to beat San Diego.

It was a strong finish to a year that started slowly because of a foot injury that sidelined the former Notre Dame star for the final three exhibition games and the first three regular-season games.

“It’s starting to get better,” Te’o said. “I’m starting to play my brand of football. I’ve still got a long way to go. I’m still not there. As you can see, I’m growing. I’m not as hesitant. I’m reacting more the way I want to. I’m more decisive. It all has to do with me understanding where I’ve got to be.”

Te’o had a lot to deal with when he came into the NFL. An All-American linebacker at Notre Dame, his draft stock fell after his poor showing in the BCS championship game loss to Alabama, followed by the revelation that he’d gotten fooled by a hoax involving a fake girlfriend.

The Chargers drafted him in the second round, but then he spent several weeks with his right foot in a walking boot after injuring it in the first exhibition game.

He didn’t make his debut until the fourth regular-season, a victory against Dallas. As the season progressed, he sometimes played well and sometimes looked lost.

“It always sets a player back anytime you have an injury like that,” defensive coordinator John Pagano said. “It hurts his development to where you can’t go run and react. Anybody can read stuff, anybody can look at film, but until you’re out reacting, going and doing those things, it’s going to slow any player’s development.”

Te’o said he didn’t understand how big of a setback it was until he was able to return to practice.

“I was frustrated and the coaches said, ‘Just be patient with it. It will come in time,'” Te’o said. “I’ve always been one to want results now. I need to perform the way I perform and I wasn’t performing the way I wanted to, so it was hard for me.”

He said repetition, help from veteran teammates such as fellow inside linebacker Donald Butler and safety Eric Weddle, and coaches correcting him helped along.

“I think I’ve learned more from my mistakes than I’ve learned from all the plays I’ve made,” Te’o said.

He finished the regular season with 93 tackles, third on the team. Weddle had 114 and Butler, who missed three games to injury, had 99.

“He’s a young guy who every week progressively has gotten better,” Butler said. “He’s always asking questions, always trying to get better, and that’s huge in any young guy. He’s doing great. He’s going to continue to get better.”

Butler was impressed with the way Te’o pushed himself to get back from the injury.

“You’ll have days where you just like, ‘Man, I really just need some rest,’ but you’ve got to go, you’ve got to learn. And we needed him,” Butler said. “Hat’s off to him for making sure that each and every day he was in here doing his rehab and taking care of business.”

Te’o doesn’t have any interceptions or fumble recoveries.

Asked if he has one big play that stands out from this year, he said: “Nope, not yet.”

Te’o is one of nine rookies on San Diego’s active roster. The Chargers have 37 players with no postseason experience.

He said he’s been told by veteran teammates to “cherish it and take advantage of it because you don’t know when your next opportunity will come.”

Te’o said he learned to keep things in perspective after Notre Dame was routed by Alabama in the BCS national championship game last season.

“It’s easy to come into this game and get too anxious to the point where you freeze,” Te’o said. “What you want to do is accept it for what it is. It’s a playoff game. The winner moves on and the loser goes home. But at the end of the day you’ve got to line up, know your keys, know your reads, study the offense and play ball. That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

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