Going into the 2010 NFL season, there will be a lot of talk about Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, rookie running back Ryan Mathews, and even about Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill, who continue to hold out.
While the air waves and sports radio stations in San Diego will have plenty to talk about before the regular season officially kicks off, what they will also discuss is the key to an AFC championship run, the one thing that will prevent the Chargers from another playoff disappointment.
There will be all sorts of opinions from not only the on-air talent but the fans as well as to what that key is. Some will say Philip Rivers, others will say the running game with Mathews as well as Darren Sproles, and there will even be a few that will clog the airwaves with pessimism and say the Chargers aren't good enough to get there anyway.
Whatever the opinions might be, and while there are many about every team in the NFL, the Chargers have one key to finally get that monkey off their back and get to the AFC title game.
One word: Defense.
In 2009 the San Diego Chargers were 16th in total defense, giving up 326.9 yards per game, and finished 10th overall in points per game against (20.0). Those weren't the worst two stats from last season, because the Chargers finished 17th in rushing defense (117.6 ypg).
Out of their 17 games last season, the Chargers' defense gave up 20 or more points in nine (6-3) of those games. In three of their first five games, they gave up 30 or more points (0-3).
That leads me to this point.:While most might think that Philip Rivers having a good season or Ryan Mathews leading the ground game might be key for this Chargers' team, it's not the biggest one. It's their defense.
Shawne Merriman, Jacques Cesaire, Luis Castillo, and Shaun Phillips will be key against the run, something this team absolutely needs to improve from last year.
Their secondary will be tested even more so than they were last season, and it's the one thing that concerns fans the most.
Quentin Jammer, Darrell Stuckey, Eric Weddle, and Antoine Cason along with Nathan Vasher and Donald Strickland will need to prove that they are that much better than they were last season. They'll need to prove that they can't be beaten deep and not allow the short passes that a lot of West Coast offenses thrive on.
They weren't the worst defense against the pass, but they will face quarterbacks who can pick them apart. They will face guys like Matt Schaub and Peyton Manning, who were ranked first and second respectively in total passing yards last season.
Four of the team's first six games will be on the road against Kansas City, Seattle, Oakland, and St. Louis. They played two games each against Oakland and Kansas City last season, winning all four including two blowouts against the Chiefs.
There shouldn't be much to worry about with the front part of their schedule, but it's the back end that might be of some concern.
The Chargers will only play four of their first nine games at home but will make that up with four of their final seven games at home against teams that could decide the divisional races.
Their final four homes games will come against Denver, Oakland, Kansas City, and San Francisco while they will be on the road for Indianapolis as well as Cincinnati and Denver to close out the 2010 season.
It's not an overloaded schedule; it may not even be the toughest schedule out there. This team has the ability to win the AFC West and go deep into the playoffs, but that same thing has been said for the past few seasons.
Defense is key to this team's success. The offense can put points on the board. They can put the ball in the end zone better than most teams in the National Football League. But it's how they shut teams down on defense that will be the most important ingredient to the Chargers finally getting past that dreaded first round playoff game.
It's still early, and the preseason is still very young, but the promise of one of the best seasons in Chargers' history hangs in the balance even before the regular season kicks off. The AFC West is almost a foregone conclusion unless the Denver Broncos have improved by leaps and bounds.
This team will win the games they're supposed to win. But it's against the better competition that this team will show their true colors and potential. Win those games, and they're well on their way to the AFC title game.