Role reversal

While the NFL has always been a place where parity leads to unpredictability, this season may have typified that sentiment more than any other. One needs to look no farther than the AFC West to see how true that is. The Chargers are tied for first after missing the playoffs each of the last eight seasons, and the two prior divisional champs are currently tied for last place.

These reversals of fortune apply not only to the West as a whole, but specifically to the team in the driver's seat of the division, the Chargers.

"This division – we feel like we can win it," said rookie offensive tackle Shane Olivea. "That is the goal. Maybe the expectations weren't high over here. Let's go out and play and change the mindset and mentality of previous San Diego Chargers teams. We are trying to build a different tradition here."

Last season, the Chargers' offense was a one man show. While LaDainian Tomlinson clawed his way into the record books, Chargers fans pined for a quarterback who could help take some pressure off of their all-galaxy running back.

The Chargers front office asked for the same thing, and felt as though they had received it when they brought Philip Rivers on board, complements of a draft-day deal with the Giants. Little did they know, the answer to their question was already on the roster. And with his stellar performance so far this season, Drew Brees has quelled all concerns of both the fans and the front office in a most emphatic manner.

"Football is the absolute team game," Brees explains. "There are so many people that need to be working together to make things work and I think we are doing that." Just when the Chargers have finally found an answer at quarterback, however, the injury bug shows up and changes the question. Now that Brees has lifted the team into playoff contention, he has painted a blue and gold bull's-eye on his chest.

In yet another reversal of fortunes, the questions is whether or not Tomlinson is healthy enough to help alleviate some of the burden from his MVP-candidate quarterback.

After watching him become the only player in NFL history to average over 100 yards rushing per game and register 100 receptions in the same season, Chargers fans know Tomlinson has the ability to do this. The talent is there, and the drive is there. If his nagging groin injury will allow it, he can carry this team on his back all the way into the playoffs.

If the injury continues to hinder the league's most talented player, though, then all of Brees' productivity may turn out to be more of a waste than Marcellus Wiley. Late in the season, it is defense and a running game that make for a winning team. The defense is doing its part, as it is currently ranked statistically as the stingiest run defense unit in the NFL. Now if Tomlinson's groin can hold him up long enough for him to hold up his end of the bargain, this team will be a threat well into January.

"We can be the best offense in the NFL," said Tomlinson.

That is why this season has a different feel about it than year's past, when the team often wilted during the second half of the season. This year it is the role players who are already delivering and it is the improved play of Tomlinson, a proven clutch player, which is needed to put this team over the top. Relying on Tomlinson to deliver is like relying on President Bush to mispronounce is only a matter of time.

So as the Chargers prepare for a three-game divisional stretch that will likely define their season, the key will keeping Tomlinson productive and healthy. Jesse Chatman has proven to be more than capable in relief, so the team needs to continue to try and build big leads, and allow their MVP to rest during the second half of games as much as possible. Because as spectacular as Brees has been, Tomlinson is still the face of the franchise, and the team will only go as far as his injured groin will take them.

Michael Lombardo can be reached at

SD Super Chargers Top Stories