No team in recent history has won a Super Bowl without either a stalwart defense, or a dominant passing duo. Three years ago, the Chargers had both, not to mention the NFL MVP in LaDainian Tomlinson and the best record in the league. But then came the playoffs, and that has always been a different, not to mention tougher story for the Chargers of this decade. San Diego secured a first round bye and home field advantage only to suffer a heart breaking comeback loss against New England and Tom Brady in the divisional round.
Two years ago their offense was inconsistent at best, but the defense led by Shawn Merriman kept them winning games. They still won the division and made it to the AFC championship game, but as fate would have it they were matched up against New England for the second year in a row, this time facing the record setting offense courtesy of the passing trio known as Brady-Moss-Welker. After a hard fought battle in the snow, even a resilient Phillip Rivers playing with a surgically repaired knee could not carry his team to victory. They were sent home for the second year in a row by the Patriots.
The Chargers struggled most of 2008 as they were plagued by injuries to Antonio Gates, Ladanian Tomlinson, and Shawn Merriman. The Chargers let Michael Turner go via free agency, left to wonder if they had a good back to split time with Tomlinson. Barely able to squeak out an 8-8 record, they still won the division after a late season collapse by the self destructing Broncos, and even ousted Indianapolis in the wildcard playoffs. Then came Pittsburgh and another tough battle in the snow. San Diego was exposed, having a stable of small running backs and no true leader on defense, they could not match Pittsburgh’s balanced offense, and had trouble operating around their stingy zone blitzes.
2009 might just be the year for the Chargers. They have Shawn Merriman back, and drafted pass rush specialist Larry English as a potential backup should he get hurt again. Darren Sproles proved late last year to be a true home run hitter, which should give the Chargers the thunder and lightning running duo they severely lacked last season.
Gates is healthy again, and Vincent Jackson is starting to show he might just be the possession receiver they sorely lack. Chris Chambers has spent a whole year in the offense now, and should be a great second option, leaving the speedy Craig Davis to run the deep routes.
Denver, Kansas City, and Oakland are all in the middle stages of rebuilding, so that leaves the Chargers the choice to either coast to victory as they did last season, or take what is theirs and leave no questions to be answered as they did in 2006.
Merriman should win comeback player of the year, Rivers should garner MVP attention if he spreads the ball around, and perhaps both will be fighting for the Super Bowl MVP if this season goes well.