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Humbling finish has Chargers juiced

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Mark Kriegel

Mark Kriegel is the national columnist for FOXSports.com. He is the author of two New York Times best sellers, Namath: A Biography and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, which Sports Illustrated called "the best sports biography of the year."

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SAN DIEGO, CA

Now, in this hastily-designed, lockout-shortened preseason — it is argued that continuity is more of an advantage than ever.

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If that's the case, or even close to it, I present you with a sleeper to come out of the AFC. That would be the San Diego Chargers — yes, those perennially-underachieving, give-away-the-first-six-games Chargers.

Granted, it feels strange to be writing that. Living in Southern California, my seasonal football ritual involves a couple of trips South on I-5 to witness an inexcusable loss and join in the chorus for Norv Turner's firing.

I reserve that right, of course. What's more, it's worth noting the Chargers don't have an easy first half, with New England and the Jets (both on the road) and Green Bay. Now maybe they're not Norv-proof, but I like their chances.

San Diego was 9-7 last season, almost despite itself, after starting 2-5. "Do we have a better team than we had last year?" says Vincent Jackson. "Yeah."

In no small measure that's because Jackson, their best receiver, is no longer a holdout and an apparently happy camper. He started five games last season. The Chargers won four.

While conceding that each season finds the team "behind the eight-ball after four or five games," Jackson figures this is the year to break that ignominious tradition. "We believe in what we have here," he says.

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And no one does so more than his quarterback, Philip Rivers. As it pertains to continuity, or lack thereof, most of the early season focus has been devoted to the flux at the quarterback position. Donovan McNabb to the Vikings. Kevin Kolb to the Cardinals. Tarvaris Jackson to Seattle. Matt Hasselbeck to the Titans. The fate of these teams and their offensive units remain unclear. (Same for the Jets, the Broncos and yes, the Eagles, by the way.)

Point is, there are four or five great quarterbacks in football. San Diego has one of them. True, Rivers has never been to a Super Bowl. But unlike Tom Brady, who's 34 and coming off foot surgery, or Peyton Manning, who's 35 and coming off neck surgery, there are no questions about his physical well-being. Now he returns from a season that saw him lead the league in passing despite a depleted receiving corps. He's 29, the unquestioned team leader and, assuming Antonio Gates can remove himself from the Physically Unable to Perform list, will find himself with two Pro-Bowl caliber targets.

Noting the frenzy with which teams came back from the lockout, Rivers said: "You almost sense it's like a mad dash trying to get ready. It's not quite that feeling here. We have been together for a while."

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No one's pining for LaDainian Tomlinson, whose poutings always seemed to dominate the Chargers' agenda, even after he was let go. But now, in the wake of a disappointing season without him, both the hype and the expectations are diminished, and that seems just fine with guys in the locker room.

"There hasn't been a lot of talk about the Chargers," said Rivers. "And I think that's been good for us."

I'm cheating, of course. The Chargers might be the most talented team ever to be declared a sleeper. They have the additional luxury of playing in the NFL's Pop Warner Division. And did I mention they don't exactly suck on defense?

With players like Eric Weddle (now the league's highest-paid safety), Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer, they gave up the fewest yards in football. But again, they've only gotten better — drafting defenders with four of their first five picks. Then they went out and signed some old pros in Bob Sanders and Takeo Spikes. Very Belichick-esque. Looks good.

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Then again, the Chargers always seem to look good on paper. That's been their problem, but maybe, for once, their blessing. To hear Rivers, they finally get it. They understand they've underachieved.

"I'm excited for our team," he said. "But we're 9-7. That's what we are: a 9-7 team that didn't make the playoffs ... We've always been a team with a lot of hype surrounding us. But as tough as it was for us to be humbled … I think that's been good for us. We're hungry and we're determined to bounce back."

Losing was good?

Chargers at a glance

 
San Diego Chargers
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"It's hard to say it's good," he said. "But that whole mindset of 'We'll come through in the end and make the playoffs anyway?'"

Yes?

"That's gone."

Norv better hope so.

Tagged: Jets, Seahawks, Chargers, Philip Rivers, Vincent Jackson, Tarvaris Jackson

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