Chargers Set Sights on Super Bowl

The Chargers enter the season bent on making good on some unfinished business with their sights set on advancing to the second Super Bowl in franchise history.

Saddled with injuries when losing to the Patriots in last season's AFC Championship Game, the Chargers figure at full strength they can play with anybody.

And they're right, with an offense featuring running back LaDainian Tomlinson aiming for his third straight NFL rushing crown, heady quarterback Philip Rivers in his third year as a starter and tight end Antonio Gates relatively fit after a painful toe injury.

The defense will have Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman, but there are some concerns on how well he'll play with two torn ligaments in his knee. But he did look good in camp leading up to the first exhibition game in which he played.

The defense also features Pro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie -- league-high 10 interceptions last year -- and nose tackle Jamal Williams.

The Chargers recognize that the time is now for this group of skilled players. After taking small steps in the last two playoffs, the Chargers are ready to take the next big one to Tampa and the Super Bowl.

Three keys for the season

1. Staying healthy: There's little doubt the Chargers are among the NFL's most talented teams. But that does little good if key players are ailing -- see the playoff loss to New England last year. The Chargers need to do a better job of avoiding the injury bug.

2. Stellar play from the offensive line: The Chargers enter the season with some questions up front. Center Nick Hardwick could miss the first month with a foot injury. Left tackle Marcus McNeill had a shoulder stinger that derailed his training camp. And right tackle Jeremy Clary is beginning his first year as a starter.

3. Stopping the run: Thanks to a usually stout run defense, rivals are often put in obvious passing situations, which allows the Chargers to run loose their impressive pass rushers. But inside linebacker Stephen Cooper -- the team's leading tackler last year -- will miss the first four games with a suspension. And Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jamal Williams is trying to nurse another season from his aching knees.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

CB Antoine Cason: The team's top pick has earned the nickel role on passing downs and needs to prove he can handle the responsibility. So far, Cason has held up but no doubt he will be tested by offensive coordinators.

ILB Derek Smith: With Cooper missing the season's first month, the team turns to the veteran Smith to hold down the position. The Chargers need Smith to supply a physical presence on running downs.

TE Antonio Gates: A painful toe injury robbed him of the offseason and most of training camp. It's believed the toe will continue to hurt through the season, meaning it could hamper Gates' production. An effective Gates is critical for opening up the running game for LaDainian Tomlinson.

RB Darren Sproles: With Tomlinson's backup, Michael Turner, moving on to Atlanta, the Chargers needed someone to serve as the No. 2 back to keep Tomlinson fresh. Sproles has earned that job with stellar play in the preseason games.

TOP GAME TO WATCH: Patriots at Chargers, Sept. 12

The Chargers welcome the team that has eliminated them from the past two playoffs -- last season, New England prevailed in the AFC Championship Game.

PLAYER NOTES

--LT Marcus McNeill is expected to return to practice this week. He has been down some three weeks with a painful stinger in his neck.

--DE Luis Castillo has been slowed by a balky back for most the training camp, but he played in the third exhibition game and is rounding into shape for the opener.

--DT Jamal Williams was watched very closely by the medical staff. The 11-year pro had both knees cleaned out in the offseason and the club is easing him back into action. But he's a go for Sept. 7 against Carolina.

--LB Jyles Tucker is being thrown into the spotlight in wake of the Shawne Merriman injury. Tucker has never started an NFL game.

--WR Vincent Jackson was slowed by a hamstring injury in camp but looked sharp in the team's third preseason game. Jackson could be on the verge of a breakout season.

--C Jeremy Newberry will fill-in for Pro Bowler Nick Hardwick as he continues to rehabilitate his injured foot. The sense is Newberry could be in that role for the season's first month.

--DT Ryon Bingham is getting the majority of snaps when the team gives Jamal Williams a blow. Bingham can also see work at defensive end.


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