AFC West Preview: San Diego Chargers, Part II

In the second part of our trip around the AFC West, we wrap up our analysis on the San Diego Chargers with a look at their upcoming season.

Reasons for optimism:

The Chargers have every reason in the world to be excited about their chances in 2008. Given the state of the division, the odds of landing a third straight AFC West title certainly appear to be in San Diego's favor.

Somewhat lost in the Chargers' journey to last season's AFC championship was the fact that most of their roster – including their biggest stars – had never experienced a playoff victory before. Some teams have been known to get tense and nervous as they advance into the uncharted waters of the postseason, and that's often reflected on the field. But after the valuable experience they gained a year ago, that's one less thing for the Chargers to worry about.

And as we covered last week, three of their biggest contributors were injured as they made their push towards the Super Bowl. How improved will San Diego be if they actually have everyone healthy this time around?

Reasons for concern:

Believe it or not, there are a few reasons Chargers fans should hold off on booking flights to Tampa.

Throughout his seven-year NFL career, LaDainian Tomlinson has been remarkably durable, missing just one regular-season contest since his rookie season in 2001. Although he's been able to rehab his postseason knee injury without going under the knife, head coach Norv Turner said the injury was serious enough that Tomlinson probably would have missed six weeks had it occurred during the regular season.

While that may not sound like a long time, keep in mind that six weeks was all Shaun Alexander missed in 2006 after breaking his foot. Many point to that injury as the beginning of the end for the former league MVP, who is currently unemployed after being released by the Seahawks in April.

While such a rapid fall from grace would be extremely unlikely for Tomlinson, one has to at least consider the possibility that the now 29-year old running back won't bounce right back from this injury.

Could it be a sign of things to come? Could the problem continue to linger on the way Alexander's foot issue seemed to? Or will it just be a blip on Tomlinson's otherwise stellar career? We'll find out in 2008.

Along those same lines, Philip Rivers underwent offseason surgery to repair his ACL. Though it appears he's ahead of schedule in his recovery, Chiefs fans may remember the similar offseason story of Carson Palmer in 2006, as Palmer's Bengals were set to visit Arrowhead in the season opener that year.

Palmer severely injured his knee during the previous season's playoffs, just as Rivers did last year. Despite early estimates that Palmer would be out for several months, he recovered in time to start the season opener in Kansas City. Clearly, though, it took a while before he began to resemble the player he had previously been.

Rivers has developed into a solid NFL quarterback, but he's never played at the high level that a quarterback like Palmer has. In fact, despite throwing the exact same number of pass attempts in both his seasons as a starter, Rivers had fewer completions, fewer yards, one less touchdown, and six more interceptions in 2007 than he had in 2006.

In other words, he's not the kind of quarterback who can play at 75 percent of his capabilities and still carry his team through a season. The Chargers can't afford for Rivers to regress. But history shows that it often takes time – and several weeks of live NFL action – for quarterbacks coming off significant knee surgery to start getting comfortable again.

How will Rivers be affected by the injury? Will he struggle for the first month or two of the season? If he does, will the Chargers be able to overcome it?

Prediction for 2008:

Even if the two doomsday scenarios outlined above happened, with L.T. and Rivers battling their injuries throughout the year, it's not going to ruin San Diego's season. Sure, their championship hopes would likely be dashed, and they'd drop a lot closer to the rest of the pack in the AFC West. But winning the division and squeaking out a playoff berth would still be possible. The rest of the team is simply too talented to let the whole thing fall apart.

It's only natural to expect Rivers to struggle when the season begins. But the defense and running game (with a healthy Tomlinson) will play well enough to cover for him. The Chargers only have three home games in the first half of the season, but their travels will take them to Denver, Oakland, Miami, Buffalo, and New Orleans, all of which seem like winnable games.

From there, they get five home games in the final eight weeks of the season, a perfect recipe for extending their division lead and making run at the #1 overall seed. They should ultimately finish somewhere around 12 to 14 wins, preparing them for another deep postseason run.

Barring continued problems with the knees of Rivers and Tomlinson, or a rash of injuries to many of their second-tier players, the Chargers have the talent to push for a championship in 2008. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone if they end up in next year's Super Bowl.

Next up: the Denver Broncos

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