My dark horse pick for 2012: The San Diego Chargers

5 Sep

With the NFL season a week away, all 32 teams and their fans have high hopes. One of the best parts of each NFL season is seeing which mediocre teams from the previous season will suddenly rise up to challenge the league’s elite teams for a Super Bowl title. The Greatest Show On Turf Rams emerged from perennial doormat status to go on a run for the ages claiming a Super Bowl title in 1999. The Patriots did it in 2001. The Saints made up for decades of futility with a dominant title run in 2009. So, which team that missed the playoffs last year is most likely to go on a surprise run to the Promised Land in 2012? Two of the most popular picks are the Panthers and Bills. However, another team is in a better position to make a surprise Super Bowl run: the San Diego Chargers.

            At this point, many NFL fans consider Norv Turner’s Chargers to be a joke, a wildly inconsistent team that, while sometimes dangerous, lacks the discipline to be great. One of the NFL’s more successful franchises of the new millennium, the Chargers suffered through several seasons of playoff heartbreak before missing the playoffs each of the last two seasons. In a mystifying 2010 season, the team had the NFL’s top ranked offense and top ranked defense but narrowly missed the playoffs in a season filled with costly turnovers and horrible special teams play. Last season quarterback Philip Rivers, usually a Pro-Bowl performer, threw 20 interceptions in a forgettable campaign. In 2012, however, the Chargers seem poised to return to the playoffs and, perhaps, play for their first Super Bowl title in franchise history. Despite their shortcomings, the Chargers have remained a dangerous team in recent seasons. In week 15 of last season, they embarrassed eventual AFC number two seed Baltimore 34-14 on national television. In a close 38-45 week 9 loss to Green Bay, Rivers went toe to toe with eventual NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers in an impressive passing display. The question in 2012 is: will the Chargers be able to maintain their consistency, focus, and discipline for an entire season?

            The Chargers play in the AFC West, a wide-open division without a dominant team (the Broncos won the division with an 8-8 record last year). Oakland and Kansas City both have new head coaches and inconsistent quarterbacks. With several key starters returning from injuries, the Chiefs appear to be a bigger challenge than the Raiders. With the addition of Peyton Manning, the Broncos are also a team in transition. If San Diego can start fast in the season’s opening weeks (an issue in a handful of previous seasons), the Chargers should challenge the Broncos for the division title. Like the AFC West, the American Football Conference as a whole is very much wide-open, or at least much less talented than the NFC, which features dangerous teams like the Saints, Packers, 49ers, Bears, and the defending Super Bowl champion Giants. In the AFC, perennial contenders Pittsburg and Baltimore have aging rosters, and the Ravens, Texans and Patriots will likely be the conference’s only elite teams entering the season. It is not outlandish to consider the Chargers a strong contender for a division title and, maybe, for the number two seed (behind the Patriots) and a playoff bye.  

            To win a Super Bowl, an NFL team must have a quality quarterback, a passer who can lead, and carry, an offense. I believe that, at his best, Philip Rivers is this type of quarterback. He certainly has a lot to prove entering 2012. Fellow 2004 quarterback draftees Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning each have two Super Bowl rings. However, Rivers has put up elite numbers for years, enjoying a three-year stretch from 2008-2010 in which he had a quarterback rating over 100 each season. Rivers has, in many ways, outperformed his rivals in the regular season, but has failed to have the same success in the playoffs, not even reaching the Super Bowl. If Rivers has a strong, consistent 2012 season, the Chargers should once again have a strong offense rejuvenated by free agent wide receivers Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem and a (finally) healthy Antonio Gates.

            A possible comparison for the 2012 Chargers would be the 2009 Saints. After a historic, exciting run to the NFC title game in 2006, the Saints floundered in 2007 and 2008 to mediocre records. A leaky defense and costly mistakes held back an elite quarterback (Drew Brees) and an explosive offense from greatness. In 2009, everything came together for the Saints, and they rode a high-powered offense and aggressive, turnover-creating defense to a Super Bowl title. The 2012 Chargers have a chance to do the same. After two mediocre seasons, the team has a chance to rise behind a revitalized Rivers and Norv Turner (who, despite his failures as a head coach, remains one of the modern NFL’s true offensive masterminds). The Chargers will not have the same dominant defense they had in 2010. However, the unit still has talent and veteran leadership coming from players like Eric Weddle, Quentin Jammer, and Shaun Phillips. If the offense can step up and be the strength of the team, the defense will not have to dominate, but merely rush the passer and create turnovers against desperate teams often playing from behind. 

            A lot has to go right for the Chargers to make a Super Bowl run in 2012, but, of course, that is why they are a dark horse pick. If the team can finally put it together, it would certainly be intriguing to watch a talented, unheralded quarterback and his offensive-minded coach lead a team to a title for a long-suffering sports city. The story came true for the Saints, and the Chargers seem most likely to be next in line.



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