The Chargers appeared primed to make a Super run to Arizona, as its roster is among the most talented and youthful in the NFL.
Any team with LaDainian Tomlinson, the NFL's MVP, has to be considered a strong favorite. But Tomlinson is hardly the lone offensive weapon, with quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates capable of changing games.
That's among the reasons the team set a franchise record for points and led the NFL in scoring last year.
On defense, the Chargers are nearly as loaded. They led the NFL in sacks last year and that was with NFL sack leader, Shawne Merriman, missing four games because of a suspension. With Pro Bowl defensive tackle anchoring the team's aggressive 3-4 scheme, the defense barely takes a back seat to the offense.
If the Chargers stay healthy -- and the transition from coach Marty Schottenheimer to Norv Turner goes smoothly -- there's no reason they can't go deep into the playoffs.
And just maybe, a return visit to Arizona.
Three keys for the season:
1. Avoiding injuries is the most important thing for the Chargers. This talent-laden roster doesn't need every player to have career years. Instead, if the core of Tomlinson, Rivers, Gates and Merriman stays fit, the Chargers could win their third AFC West title in four years.
2. The inside play at linebacker will be a huge factor as the team breaks in two new starters. It's imperative that Stephen Cooper and Matt Wilhelm contribute to a stout run defense and help win on the early downs. If that's the case, the defense can unleash a pass rush in obvious throwing situations -- the Chargers led the NFL with 61 sacks last year. But Wilhelm's summer was slowed by a nagging calf injury, which could hamper the first-time starter.
3. Players must handle the enormous expectations the front office and fans have placed on them. It's Super Bowl or bust, which is quite a mantra for a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game since the 1994 season. Plus, after going an NFL-best 14-2 in the regular season last year, the Chargers will no longer sneak up on rivals.
--ILB Matt Wilhelm replaces Donnie Edwards after Edwards led the team in tackles for five straight years. Edwards was stellar in dropping back into pass coverage when asked -- Wilhelm isn't quite that type of linebacker.
--OLB Shaun Phillips plays lights out, but gets lost in the wake of the team's more animated OLB Shawne Merriman. Phillips had 13 1/2 sacks last season and could surpass that with teams concentrating on Merriman.
--RB Michael Turner is nursing a high ankle sprain, but he's confident about being ready for the season opener.
--SS Clinton Hart has rebuffed rookie Eric Weddle in his bid for the starting job.
--While LB Matt Wilhelm (calf) is set to return, backup Tim Dobbins opened some eyes with his work when Wilhelm was down.
--RB Tyronne Gross was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury.
--TE T.J. Cottrell, the son of Chargers defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, was among the first wave of Chargers cuts.
--CB Antonio Cromartie, for the second straight camp, was unable to knock Drayton Florence out of the starting spot.
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