San Diego Chargers Expect To Contend Again

William RisserCorrespondent IMay 7, 2009

PITTSBURGH - JANUARY 11:  Snow falls as Philip Rivers #17 of the San Diego Chargers gestures at the line of scrimmage against the Pittsburgh Steelers during their AFC Divisional Playoff Game on January 11, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Steelers won 35-24.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

After a slow start chock-full of injuries, the San Diego Chargers finished hot to win the AFC West and came within one game of the AFC Championship game. Anything less in the 2009 season would be a step backwards and the players and coaches know the window of opportunity is not going to be open forever in a stacked AFC.

Super Bowl expectations are not a stretch for the Bolts as they return nearly every starter on offense and defense.

 Out of last season's struggles came a break out Pro-Bowl year from quarterback Philip Rivers and the emergence of now franchised do-it-all back Darren Sproles.

The return of Shawne Merriman and a bountiful defensive draft should help the defense return to form after seeing their interception (15, -15) and sack totals (28, -15) plummet last year.

But it may all come down to the health and durability of LaDainian Tomlinson. The effectiveness of the running game will be most important in order to contend in the AFC.

The AFC West should continue to provide fodder for the Chargers who went 5-1 against division foes last year with the only loss coming at Denver on the now infamous Hochuli call. Division dominance will be key as the rest of the schedule features the NFC East and AFC North.

There will be no time to waste as the season opens with three playoff teams including both AFC finalists in the first four weeks before their bye.

The week four game at Pittsburgh will be a bell-weather game a quarter into the season. In the season ending playoff loss against the Steelers the Bolts only mustered 15 yards rushing while surrendering 165. Oh yeah, they had the ball what?, 17 seconds in the third-quarter. A reinvigorated running game and a return to putting pressure on opposing offenses to neutralize the run will be vital elements improving on last season's .500 record, which was the Chargers worst since 2003.

The maturation of Philip Rivers and his receiving corps was evident with a regular season QB rating of 105.3 and 35 touchdowns. The continued growth of this unit and a still effective L.T. will make this a formidable offense unit.

What role the fickle hand of injuries will play can never be known but, as was shown in the team's recent mini-camp, all precautions are being taken early. Coach Norv Turner and GM A.J. Smith are well aware of what the stakes are and will have no one to point to if a serious title run isn't made.

A strong start, a resurgent running game and the return of break-neck, we're going to sack you into oblivion defensive pressure will be what the Chargers need to excel this season.

But If the defense can't create the turnovers off pressure the offense will be forced to air it out to outscore opponents which, when push came to shove against the Steelers in January, didn't cut it too often. The time is now for the Bolts and they know it.