Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham and Bill Williamson
Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL.
Two of the safest bets heading into 2008 were the New England Patriots would remain atop the AFC East and the San Diego Chargers would win the AFC West again. A Patriots-Chargers' showdown in the conference title game sounded sensible.
That, of course, didn't happen. The Patriots didn't reach the playoffs, while the Chargers squeaked into the postseason.
The teams were hollow versions of themselves. Each had lost its soul because of knee injuries one game into the season.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady suffered torn ligaments on opening day. Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman tried to play despite a previous double tear of his own, but couldn't do it and opted for surgery.
Brady and Merriman are healthy this year and plan on contending for the Super Bowl. In the latest edition of our weekly "Double Coverage" debate, AFC West blogger Bill Williamson and AFC East blogger Tim Graham discuss which returning superstar will have the bigger impact for his team.
Bill Williamson: Tim, arguing against Brady is like trying to poke holes at JFK at a Fourth of July clam bake on the Cape. I admire Brady's accomplishments and abilities as much as anyone. But I think I have a shot on this one. Merriman is a force, and he proved that he is one of the most indispensable players in the NFL by sitting out all but one game in 2008. Yes, even more than Mr. Gisele. Merriman is more important to his team than Brady. You want proof? New England was 11-5 despite playing most of those games without Brady. San Diego was 8-8, playing 15 of those games without Merriman. In two previous seasons, with Merriman dominating from his outside linebacker position, San Diego won 25 games in 32 regular-season tries. With Matt Cassel as Brady's replacement last season, New England was still a top team. The Chargers floundered without Merriman. Yes, they went to the postseason and New England didn't. But that's more of an indictment on the rest of the AFC West. After all, San Diego was 4-8 at one point. The Chargers were paralyzed without Merriman on defense. The Patriots still flourished without Brady on offense.
Tim Graham: Anybody who wants to marginalize Brady's greatness can make quick reference to what the Patriots accomplished without him. A backup who hadn't started a single game since high school came in and led them to 11 victories. The Patriots almost made the playoffs. But the key word in that sentence is "almost." Cassel turned out to be decent. He was good enough that the Kansas City Chiefs wanted him to be their leading man -- even with a one-year, $14.65 million price tag. But Cassel won those 11 games against the NFL's weakest schedule based on 2007 records. Against an almost identical schedule, the Miami Dolphins went from a one-victory team to AFC East champs. Had Brady been healthy last year, the Patriots would have remained Super Bowl favorites. You do make a good point that the loss of Merriman rendered the Chargers a .500 team, but let me remind everybody the Patriots' win total shrank by five last year. The Chargers regressed by only three victories without Merriman.
BW: There's no doubt New England would have been a Super Bowl contender with Brady. But San Diego would have been a Super Bowl contender with Merriman. The Chargers were beaten in the air when they lost at Pittsburgh in playoffs. Merriman's presence was missing. The team was just average on pass defense without him most of the season, and especially in that game when Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger passed at will against San Diego. Put Merriman in the mix and the Chargers would have had a legitimate chance in that game. Remember, San Diego would have played host to the AFC title game the next week against Baltimore. Add Merriman and the home crowd and the Chargers could have been playing in the Super Bowl.
TG: A similar argument can be made for Brady's absence against the Steelers in Week 13. The Steelers went into Gillette Stadium and made Cassel seem like a rag doll. The Steelers sacked him five times. Much of that can be attributed to Cassel's lack of experience against a dynamic defense. Brady has thrived in that type of environment before. He's subtly agile -- like Dan Marino was and Peyton Manning is -- and has a quick release to go along with his smarts. That makes Brady one of the tougher NFL quarterbacks to sack. In 2007, the Patriots gave up 21 sacks, their fewest in two decades. They sent three offensive linemen to the Pro Bowl. With the same unit last year, they surrendered 48 sacks, fifth-most in the league. Only one lineman went back to Honolulu. Brady makes everybody around him look like a superstar.
BW: Good idea, Tim. Let'
;s talk about sacks. The Chargers were begging for sacks on the side of the road outside of Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday mornings with Merriman on crutches. Merriman led the NFL with 39.5 sacks in his first three NFL seasons. He has 39.5 sacks in 43 regular-season games. He was the premier sack man in the league at 24 years old. It's just not the sacks themselves, however, that make Merriman so fierce. It's the threat of the sack. It's the fact that offenses knew that Merriman was going to bring the heat every passing down. It's fear. Merriman scared opponents. San Diego's opponents in 2008 were fearless because No. 56 was not bringing the heat anymore. Unlike Cassel, Merriman's replacements Jyles Tucker and Marques Harris were unable to perform at a near-Pro Bowl level. Both were decent pass-rushers, but neither offered Merriman's intensity or consistency.
TG: Ask AFC East cornerbacks about fear. The Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets have been hoarding defensive backs through free agency and the draft to cope with a Brady-operated offense. The Patriots put a few scoreboards on tilt two years ago, setting all sorts of records. His top two receivers, Randy Moss and Wes Welker, have gone on record as predicting they will be even scarier this year with Brady back at the controls. Brady still was learning how to play with Moss and Welker, who were in their first seasons with the Patriots in 2007. With three years in the system and Brady back, look out.
BW: I don't think Denver, Kansas City and Oakland are overly thrilled about facing a repaired Merriman, either. He has worked out intensely and is counting the days until he can make an impact. Merriman loves showing his ability. He loves making an impact. There is nothing Merriman would love more than showing he is the reason why San Diego is special on defense. Brady is great and the Patriots will be better with him on the field in 2009, but the Chargers' defense will be elite again after being below average in 2008.
TG: There's no disputing each of these teams will have a better chance at winning the Super Bowl with a healthy Merriman or Brady. But only one of them plays the most important position in the game, and only one of them is among the top two quarterbacks in the league.