SAN DIEGO -- There is no one in the AFC West that matters more than the San Diego Chargers. They have won the past four division titles and they'll run that streak to five this season.
But winning a division no longer will do. They must take the next step forward, and the next step is the Super Bowl. The question, of course, is: Can they? Look at the roster. There is talent galore. In fact, there's a lot to like about this club, and let's get started:
• Quarterback Philip Rivers. If and when he wins a Super Bowl people will appreciate this guy for what he is: One of the toughest, most accurate and most successful quarterbacks on the planet. Quick, who is the NFL's highest-rated passer the past two seasons? Drew Brees? No. Peyton Manning? Uh-uh. It's Rivers, with a 104.95 mark. A year ago he threw for a career-best 4,254 yards. He was more accurate than ever. He had more completions than ever. He threw 28 touchdown passes and only nine interceptions. He also won his final 11 regular-season starts. There wasn't much he missed, except going deep in the playoffs, and that's an issue. For Rivers to gain the attention he deserves he needs to add one line to his résumé, and that's Super Bowl quarterback. Trust me, people. He'll get there.
• Wide receiver Malcom Floyd. People wonder what happens to the passing game without Vincent Jackson, and I'll tell you: Floyd. The guy has great size (6-feet-5), soft hands and a marvelous ability to get the football. With Floyd, Legedu Naanee and veteran Josh Reed, the Chargers are OK at wide receiver. With tight ends Antonio Gates, Randy McMichael and Kris Wilson, they're more than OK with pass catchers.
• Rookie running back Ryan Mathews. If you watched last weekend's defeat of the Chicago Bears you saw why the Chargers moved up in the draft to acquire him. He has everything you're looking for in a young back and should push the league's 31st-ranked rushing game to respectability. "It's everything about him," said general manager A.J. Smith. "It's his running style, which is extremely physical. He can break tackles. He has a very strong straight-arm. He's power packed in the legs. His instincts are outstanding. His acceleration is second to none. And he has outstanding speed. For some reason, he's not given much credit out there for speed, but you're talking about 4.37 or 4.41 speed -- and, to me, it shows. So he has the ability to kick it outside, and he has the ability to break arm tackles and attempts from inside. Plus, he's six feet tall and weighs 219 pounds, so we're excited about what he brings to the table." They should be.
• The return of linebacker Shawne Merriman. Unlike Jackson and left tackle Marcus McNeill, he finally signed his tender and reported. Now we get to find out what he has to offer. I don't know, either, but I do know Merriman has every reason to make an impact. Once upon a time, he was one of the game's standout pass rushers, and while that hasn't been the case lately there's no doubt the Chargers are a better team with him in the lineup.
• Team unity. The Chargers had 50 players show up daily for offseason workouts, "and that was from 7:30 in the morning on," said Rivers. Players keep mentioning how much happier this year's team is, and I consider that a jab at LaDainian Tomlinson. Maybe I'm wrong, but you get the feeling walking through this locker room that these guys are, how do I put this, delighted to go to work. "Sometimes you had a situation [last year] where guys were unhappy," said Gates. "Even though they were good players, they were unhappy. But now that that's behind us, and we can just worry about the players who are in this locker room. There's a happiness with these guys. They want to be here, and they want to win and they want to win for the person next to them. Now, it's pretty mellow." Works for me.
• Their closing speed. Nobody knows how to finish a season like the Chargers. They have won their past 18 games in December. Look at the 2010 schedule: Their four December dates are Oakland, Kansas City, San Francisco and a Dec. 26 date at Cincinnati. I count three wins in there, maybe four. Remember, this is a team that was 7-1 on the road last season, including a December defeat of Dallas.
• The schedule. The Chargers are in the AFC West, where they were 5-1 a year ago and 20-4 over the past four seasons. So figure on a minimum of five wins there. Then they pick up the NFC West, and give me another four there. That leaves six more starts, and a split there puts them at 12-4. Can you say "home-field advantage?" The Chargers have the third-easiest schedule in the NFL (only Arizona and St. Louis have it better), facing opponents with a .453 winning percentage, and, yes, I expect them to take advantage of it.
• The absences of McNeill and Jackson. So McNeill was inconsistent in his play last season. He was a starter, and that means he was better than anyone they had at his position. Jackson excelled, leading the team in receiving yards and receiving TDs, and he will be hard to replace. But the Chargers are confident Floyd can step into the void and do for them this season what Jackson did a year ago. We'll see.
• Their slow starts. Next time you read The Tortoise and the Hare you can cast Norv Turner as the tortoise and Denver's Josh McDaniels as the hare. The Broncos won the first six games last season, yet finished way, way behind San Diego. That's because the Chargers are built for the long haul, not September and October. In fact, they struggle then, with the team going no better than 2-3 in its first five games of any season under Turner. I know it hasn't affected them, but it could. Someone order a round of coffee for the season opener.
• Wide receiver Buster Davis. The guy has ability, but he also has an uncanny knack for getting hurt. It happened again against Chicago, and at some point the club is going to lose its patience. Davis was a first-round pick for a reason: The club believed he could be an impact player. But you have to get on the field to have an impact, and good luck with that one, guys.