Posted by ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson
There are heavy expectations for the 2009 San Diego Chargers.
The Chargers have been knocking on the Super Bowl door for years and many believe they will break through this season. Four of 16 ESPN experts think the Chargers will win the Super Bowl, as does the ESPN The Magazine. Here are 10 keys for the Chargers finally to win their first Super Bowl as prepare to open the season Monday night in Oakland.
1. Philip Rivers: Rivers needs to play like a superstar this year. All the pieces are in place for him to have a big year. He has talent around him and he is in his prime. Rivers is a leader whose teammates believe in him. It is time for him to improve and take the next step along with his teammates.
2. LaDainian Tomlinson: Tomlinson doesn’t have to be great this season and he might not be. He just turned 30, has battled injuries and he had his least productive season last year. So, not much is expected. But if Tomlinson, who seems fiercely focused this summer, can stay healthy and rush for 1,500 yards, the multi-talented Chargers will be difficult to stop.
3. Shawne Merriman: If Merriman is the same player he was before he missed all but one game with a knee injury last season, the Chargers defense will be tough. San Diego learned to play without him last season, but it was a rough lesson and it’s not anything the team wants to repeat. The Chargers are much better against the pass, and they are much meaner overall, with Merriman on the field. He makes them a different team.
4. Start fast: The Chargers didn’t ruin their seasons by starting poorly the last two seasons, but their turnaround was wearying. In 2007, San Diego started 5-5 before finishing 11-5. Last year, it was much more stressful. The Chargers floundered, starting 4-8. Then, they became the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs after starting that way. The Chargers, who play 2008 playoff teams Baltimore, Miami and Pittsburgh in Weeks 2-4, want to start much faster so they can keep an even keel during the season in a weak AFC West. If the Chargers don’t have to stress in December, they may be better rested for a long playoff run.
5. Norv Turner: In many circles, Turner still has to prove himself as a head coach despite his brilliant late-season work in San Diego. Many people don’t think Turner can win big when it counts. Still, he has been good in the postseason in San Diego where his calm in-game demeanor benefits his team. Starting fast will help Turner show everyone that he is the right man to lead this team in February.
6. Defense: Again, it starts with Merriman. If he’s healthy, the defense is better. The Chargers struggled in pass defense last season. However, they think they will be better because coordinator Ron Rivera had a full offseason to work with the team; he had instant success after taking over at the mid-way point last year. Also, cornerback Antonio Cromartie needs to bounce back from a hip injury, which contributed to a subpar season. If Merriman stays healthy, Rivera’s success continues and Cromartie rebounds, this defense will be a top-tier unit again.
7. Offensive line: This has never been an issue until this preseason. Rivers was sacked four times in a limited role during a preseason game against Arizona. That cannot happen. The Chargers will not go far in the playoffs if this usually air-tight unit falters. It shouldn’t be a problem. It was likely just a preseason glitch. If Rivers is on his back, the Chargers will not be Super Bowl bound.
8. Beat Pittsburgh and New England: The Chargers have tamed the Colts in the postseason. Now it is time to get past the Steelers and the Patriots. A San Diego Super Bowl run was ended by those two teams in the past three seasons. San Diego will not get to the playoffs unless it can past the Patriots and Steelers.
9. Health: This goes for any team. The Chargers have to stay healthy. They are due. They have suffered inopportune injuries the past two seasons to several key players. San Diego enters the regular season much healthier than it was this time last season. It needs to stay healthy for the next five months.
10. Darren Sproles: Even if Tomlinson is top-notch this season, Sproles can take the Chargers over the top. This team is loaded on offense. Still, there is a place for the 5-foot-6 Sproles in both the running and receiving game. Sproles can make the Chargers a special offense. And don’t forget about the return game. Sproles is a premier returner. Like he did against the Colts in the playoffs last season, Sproles can be magical for the Chargers as they make a Super Bowl run.