With Lights Out and LT healthy, Chargers are Favorites to Win AFC West

Anthony GContributor IMay 19, 2009

SAN DIEGO - MAY 03: Linebacker Shawne Merriman #56 of the San Diego Chargers watches practice during minicamp at the team's training facility on May 3, 2009 in San Diego, California. Merriman did not participate in any of the drills. (Photo by Kevin Terrell/Getty Images)

Chargers' success in 2009 contingent upon health of two stars

Last year, the San Diego Chargers made an improbable December run to capture their third straight AFC West title. The Bolts should have less trouble capturing the AFC West crown and returning to the playoffs in 2009, but their success depends on the health of two of their stars.

While every team in the NFL deals with injuries, the Chargers were hit especially hard last season. And how well the Bolts do this season will depend on how well two key players comeback from injury—linebacker Shawne Merriman and running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

The Chargers’ defense was never really the same after losing Merriman to season-ending knee surgery in the second week of 2008. Merriman’s ability to pressure the quarterback was sorely missed last season as the Chargers allowed 247 passing yards per game, second-worst in the NFL.

On the other side of the ball, running back LaDainian Tomlinson was never fully healthy and while the Chargers still averaged 108 yards rushing per game in 2008, their ground game was inconsistent. This led to career passing numbers for quarterback Philip Rivers, but also made the Chargers offense too reliant on the pass.

If LT and Lights Out avoid the injury bug, Chargers fans could be looking at a great 2009 campaign. In his third year as San Diego’s full-time signal caller, Rivers put up his best numbers as a pro, throwing for career highs in passing yards and touchdowns and becoming the face of the franchise along the way.

The defense will be much improved with Merriman on the field and first-round draft pick Larry English will help the pass rush from both the defensive end and linebacker positions. Together, Merriman and English could be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks and allow for the Chargers secondary to play more press coverage on the outside.

Ultimately, the stability Merriman’s surgically repaired knee and the dependability of Tomlinson will determine the Chargers’ fate in 2009. With both players fully healthy, the Bolts can contend for the Super Bowl, but with either ailing it could be a one and done postseason run for San Diego.

But diehards in America’s Finest City can rest assured—the Chargers should rack up at least 10 wins in 2009 and make a fourth-straight trip to the postseason.