LaDainian Tomlinson looks to continue his trend of running for more than 100 yards in the season opener every even-numbered year. He did it against the Cincinnati Bengals in 2002 (114), the Houston Texans in 2004 (121) and the Oakland Raiders in 2006 (131). The Chargers won each of those games.
Tomlinson will have a new face clearing holes for him, as rookie Mike Tolbert gets the starting nod at fullback. Tolbert put on a show during the preseason as a blocker, pass-catcher and short-yardage runner. Now he has to do it when the games count. He'll be trying to track down linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, Carolina's first-round picks in 2007 and 2005, respectively.
The Chargers will look to win at the point of attack behind a patchwork offensive line. Ten-year veterans L.J. Shelton and Jeremy Newberry will start in the place of Marcus McNeill (neck) and Nick Hardwick (foot), respectively. The top objective is to wear down Carolina's tackle rotation, featuring run-stuffer Maake Kemoeatu, former first-round pick Damione Lewis and nine-year veteran Darwin Walker.
When the Chargers Pass
Many NFL pundits have said Philip Rivers must step up if the Chargers are to break through and make it to the Super Bowl. However, it's not like Rivers hasn't been doing his share. His career passer rating (86.6) is the highest in team history amongst players with at least 500 attempts and his career winning percentage (0.781) is the second-highest in the Super Bowl era.
QB Philip Rivers
The matchups will be more intense outside the hashes. Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson will be pitted against 2004 first-round pick Chris Gamble and stalwart Ken Lucas. Chambers looks to show progress after having a full offseason to grow more comfortable in the offense. Jackson looks to continue the momentum he built last postseason, when he caught 18 passes for 300 yards and two TDs.
Any success through the air will depend on the offensive line giving Rivers time to throw. Shelton will need help on the left side holding off former No. 2 overall pick Julius Peppers, so look for Brandon Manumaleuna to spend the bulk of his time on that side of the formation. The good news: The Panthers finished last season with the second-fewest sacks in the NFL (23), while the Chargers ranked in the top-eight in sacks allowed (24).
When the Panthers Run
Carolina's game plan is to establish the run, shorten the game and wear down San Diego's run defense. A pair of first-round picks, Jonathan Stewart (2008) and DeAngelo Williams (2006), will be charged with leading the ground attack. Williams will likely get the start, but Head Coach John Fox will go with the hot hand as the game progresses.
The Panthers reshaped their offensive line in the offseason in an effort to become more physical. Massive first-round pick Jeff Otah (6 foot 6, 330 lbs.) will start at right tackle and free-agent addition Keydrick Vincent (6 foot 5, 325 lbs.) will flank him at right guard. That side of the line should provide a stern test for Luis Castillo, who battled back pain during training camp.
If the Chargers hope to stop the run, they will need a big performance by Jamal Williams. The three-time All Pro sat out all of the preseason to rest his surgically repaired knees but has deemed himself fit for the opener. Williams must tie up multiple blockers and keep his linebackers clean, namely newcomer Derek Smith, who will start in place of Stephen Cooper (suspension).
When the Panthers Pass
The Chargers caught a huge break when All Pro receiver Steve Smith was suspended by the Panthers for the first two games of the season after punching teammate Ken Lucas in the face. Smith is the only game-breaker in Carolina's passing attack, so the Chargers can now serve up single coverage on the outside and keep an eighth man in the box to stop the run.
CB Antonio Cromartie
Without a lot of good matchups on the outside, look for Jake Delhomme to turn to his tight ends early and often. He has developed on-field chemistry with tight ends Jeff King and Dante Rosario and will look to them as safety nets, especially on third downs.
The Chargers will look to fluster Delhomme, who'll be playing in his first real game since last Sept. 23. Shawne Merriman will play with a knee brace, although he'll take plenty of breathers on early downs as the game progresses. Shaun Phillips and Jyles Tucker will be asked to pick up the slack when Merriman takes a blow, while Marques Harris will get some run, as well. Look for Phillips to use his quick first step to exploit his matchup with the rookie Otah, who is known more for his strength than agility.
Just for Kicks
When Nate Kaeding kicks off and when Mike Scifres punts, they'll see a familiar face fielding the ball. The Panthers signed return man Mark Jones after he was released by the Chargers last week. Jones isn't much of a homerun threat, but he is dependable and reads his blocks well.
Scifres will play an especially important role in this contest. The Panthers plan to dink and dunk the Chargers to death, which will be hard to do if they must march the length of the field. The same logic applies to Kaeding when he's kicking off; he must be careful not to let his corner kicks squirt out of bounds.
Darren Sproles will handle kickoff and punt returns for the Chargers, although a few other players could be involved. Buster Davis may be used to return a punt or two; he shows more smoothness and decisiveness than Sproles. Cromartie could be used on kickoff returns in the fourth quarter if the Chargers are playing from behind.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.