|Philip Rivers: The best current QB not to play in a Super Bowl. (US Presswire)|
It's now or never for Norv Turner and the San Diego Chargers.
The club missed the playoffs the past two seasons and another failure almost surely will cost Turner his job. Turner knows the drill, but he also knows his team isn't the favorite in the AFC West anymore.
Defending champion Denver is, and let me explain in two words: Peyton Manning. The assumption is that he makes the Broncos better, much better, than they were a year ago, but I would be careful He's 36, coming off four neck surgeries, hasn't played in over a year and is in the same division with Turner and the Chargers.
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So what? So Turner has won four of his past five vs. Manning, and the Chargers have won five of their past six. Manning's Colts were better than Manning's Broncos, which means San Diego could ... and should ... be a playoff contender.
Hey, they would've won the division last season if Philip Rivers hadn't fumbled a snap in the last minute vs. Kansas City. The Chargers are capable of returning to the top of the division. They're just not as capable as they were when Turner first took over.
QB: Rivers is coming off one of his most disappointing seasons in a while, and it's not because the Bolts were 8-8; it's because Rivers made so many atypical mistakes. Untimely interceptions, fumbles, dumb plays, you name it, Rivers was in the middle of it. His interceptions were up while his TDs, completion percentage and passer rating were down. Sorry, Joe Flacco, but Rivers is the best quarterback in today's game never to have gone to a Super Bowl, and there is nothing wrong with him that a good offensive line, solid receivers or a capable defense can't solve. Nevertheless, the guy is 17-16 over his past 33 starts, including the playoffs, and that must change.
RB: Ryan Mathews is the unchallenged starter, with the Chargers saying they see him having a big season. Well, it's about time. He was the 12th pick of the draft two years ago, and the club spent most of the past two seasons waiting on him to emerge as a premier back. With Mike Tolbert out of the picture, he has his chance. The question, of course, is: Who takes Tolbert's spot? My guess: Fullback Le'Ron McClain, who could have a raft of fourth-quarter carries if the situation demands it. The Chargers think he was underused as a back in previous stops and plan to give him more carries, particularly between the tackles. Curtis Brinkley could be an option, too. He didn't play much last season, but when he did he was effective.
WR: The loss of Vincent Jackson hurts, but the Chargers recovered quickly by signing free agents Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal. Turner believes Meachem can have 1,000 yards, while Royal is a perfect slot receiver who can double as a return man. Meachem never had an opportunity to emerge in New Orleans because of the raft of targets available to Drew Brees, but he proved he could be a deep threat -- something San Diego needs. Malcom Floyd has star potential, if he can ever stay healthy, while coaches are high on second-year pro Vincent Brown. The only problem: He's 5-feet-11. The addition of Roscoe Parrish was smart. The guy is a terrific return man and ideal off the bench -- provided he stays healthy. If nothing else, there is depth at a position where there has been little in the past -- with injuries depleting Rivers' choice of targets so completely two years ago that 17 players had receptions. There's also more speed. A lot more.
TE: Antonio Gates isn't the premier player he once was, but he's still better than almost anyone at this position. Beset by injuries the past two years, Gates nevertheless was the team's leading receiver and second-best in scoring receptions. Re-signing Randy McMichael was a good idea. He's a decent second option to Gates and can block.
OL: It won't be easy to overcome the loss of left guard Kris Dielman, but Tyronne Green did a more than adequate job in his place last season. Another surprise was the play of left tackle Jared Gaither, acquired after Kansas City released him in midseason. The Chargers thought so much of the guy they released Marcus McNeill and re-signed Gaither after he became a free agent. They also re-signed center Nick Hardwick, guaranteeing continuity to an offensive line that has been a revolving door over the years. With the left side intact, the Chargers return the same five starting offensive linemen they had down the stretch in 2011, and never underestimate the importance of that comfort zone for Rivers. Depth might be a question, however, with tackle Brandyn Dombrowski the most experienced of the backups.
DL: Surprise, surprise, surprise. Luis Castillo is back, with the Chargers re-signing him this week to a one-year contract. He missed all but one game last season with a broken leg, and his replacements were so ineffective they put pressure on the team's linebackers. Corey Liuget could take over for Castillo, and coaches are high on him. They should be. He was last year's first-round draft pick. But look for competition at the position, a welcome relief for a club that in recent years was handicapped by crippling injuries to its defense. Antonio Garay is steady in the middle, and re-signing him was important for continuity. Cam Thomas is a suitable backup, while defensive end Vaughn Martin has shown flashes and backup Jacques Cesaire provides depth.
LB: Once a pressure unit, San Diego's linebackers didn't command sacks from people they expected -- like outside linebacker Shaun Phillips, who missed four games because of injuries. Phillips was more effective when Shawne Merriman was a force, and the numbers speak for themselves, with Phillips reduced to a career-low 3½ sacks. Fortunately, Antwan Barnes was there to step in, with his 11 sacks leading the club. Barnes' value, however, is not as an every-down player, and that became apparent as the season wore on. Importing Jarret Johnson to take over at one outside linebacker position is significant for two reasons: 1) It allows Phillips more freedom to operate as an all-out pass rusher; and 2) It frees the Chargers to spot Barnes, making him more effective as he rests. Donald Butler and Takeo Spikes are fine inside, with Spikes producing another 100-tackle season. But the guy is 35, and his range is limited. Demorrio Williams adds depth at the position, but the Chargers' hole isn't inside; it's outside, where they must get a push. Of course, that's why they drafted Larry English, but he hasn't been able to avoid debilitating injuries.
DB: The biggest change here is at safety where free agent Atari Bigby replaces Steve Gregory, who signed with New England. Bigby is a big hitter who is injury prone. Keeping him on the field will be a priority. Eric Weddle is coming off an All-Pro season, and is solid, but cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer are not. They're OK, but nothing special and an upgrade at cornerback is always a possibility. Neither Neither Marcus Gilchrist nor Shareece Wright would appear to be that guy. Wright and Cason traded spots atone point last season, but each was beaten too often. Jammer's game declined as the season wore on, and a bounce back is needed.