Expectations high again for Rivers, Chargers
SAN DIEGO (AP) The San Diego Chargers' bandwagon is ready to roll.
With baseball's Padres heading toward their eighth straight year of missing the playoffs, the Chargers are set to own San Diego, at least until having to share the spotlight with Steve Fisher's San Diego State men's basketball team starting in November.
Fans are stoked again after their beloved Bolts got hot in December, got some big help from other teams - and even an official's missed call - to end a three-year playoff drought. They won a game in the postseason for the first time since 2008 before the magic ran out against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in the divisional round.
Getting back to the playoffs won't be easy. The Broncos loaded up after their embarrassing Super Bowl loss to Seattle and the Chargers play the NFC West, including the Seahawks at home in Week 2.
So, the fans' dreams of a deep playoff run could be a year or so away.
Nonetheless, the Chargers should still be entertaining behind resurgent quarterback Philip Rivers. Another winning season won't be a bad thing as ownership continues its quest - now in its 12th year - to get a new stadium built.
Here are some things to watch for as the Chargers open their season:
ROLLING RIVERS: The Chargers' success is going to start and end with Rivers. Now in his ninth season as starter, Rivers is coming off a career year that earned him Comeback Player of the Year and proved he wasn't washed up, as some critics had thought. Rivers didn't think he had gone anywhere, but his interceptions and the number of times he was sacked in 2011-12 hurt his productivity.
Rivers thrived last year in coach Mike McCoy's uptempo offense, completing an NFL-high 69.5 percent of his passes while throwing for 4,478 yards and 32 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.
There's no reason to think he won't be just as good this season.
LOADED O: Rivers will have plenty of guys to choose from in divvying up touches.
Running back is now a three-headed monster with the addition of Donald Brown from Indianapolis. He joins Ryan Mathews, coming off a career-high 1,255 yards and in his contract season, and Danny Woodhead, the tough, crafty little third-down back. The Bolts needed another thumper to back up Mathews, who gamely played on an injured ankle late last season before finally being forced out of the playoff loss at Denver.
Star tight end Antonio Gates returns, still seeking his first NFL championship. Even if Gates has lost a step, he's still got sure hands - he had a team-high 77 catches last year. The former Kent State hoops star can still position his body to pick up first downs and remains a big threat inside the 20-yard line.
Keenan Allen will try to avoid a sophomore slump after leading all NFL rookies in every significant receiving category. Teams will look to take him out of his game after he caught 68 passes for 1,001 yards and eight scores. The return of Malcom Floyd from a scary neck injury is big, but counting on him for a full season isn't wise because he's made it through 16 games only once in his 10-season career. Eddie Royal is good, but Vincent Brown hasn't practiced since the first day of camp.
MAGIC MIKE: An unlikely scenario made McCoy's first season with the Bolts a success. Now comes the hard part - the encore.
The Chargers won their last four games, coupled with two-game losing streaks by both Miami and Baltimore, to end a three-year playoff drought. Oh, and there was that botched call against San Diego on Ryan Succop's missed 41-yard field goal attempt with 4 seconds left in regulation in the season finale, a win against Kansas City.
Freeney could end up in the Hall of Fame because of his 107 1/2 career sacks. But he's 34 and entering his 13th NFL season. He made it only four games into last season, had one-half sack, then was sidelined by a quadriceps injury.
Ingram returned late in the season after tearing up a knee during offseason workouts.
WEAKNESSES: The defensive line is thin and has been abused by opponents during the exhibition season. That will put more pressure on the solid linebacking corps. Manti Te'o, bothered by a right foot injury during his rookie season, now has an injured left foot.
The Chargers hope the addition of rookie Jason Verrett and veteran Brandon Flowers from the division rival Kansas City Chiefs will help the back end of a defense that struggled mightily against the pass last year. Because, you know, they still have to face Manning twice a season.
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