TE Brandon Manumaleuna (Chris Chambers/Getty)
No team had climbed from a 4-8 start to make the playoffs. The Chargers did just that, won their third straight AFC West title and won a playoff game.
But that wasn't quite enough.
The Chargers were looking to break ground with their first Super Bowl title. One season removed from the AFC title game, the Chargers felt primed to build on their recent playoff success.
But they fell to the Steelers in a divisional playoff game, putting at least another season between the Chargers and that elusive NFL title.
This season ended much like the previous one, with star running back LaDainian Tomlinson idle with an injury and the Chargers bowing in a cold-weather game. The Steelers dominated the line of scrimmage and eliminated the Chargers, 35-24, for the first time in three postseason meetings.
What went right: The Chargers, along with coach Norv Turner, have to be commended for staying the course after losing eight of their first 12 games. Despite long odds of catching the Broncos, the Chargers did with spirited play down the stretch due, in some part, to a revived defense under new coordinator Ron Rivera. The Chargers benefited from the dramatic mid-season firing of Ted Cottrell in favor of Rivera.
But it was the offense with quarterback Philip Rivers spearheading an attack that transformed them from leaning on Tomlinson and opting to ride Rivers' big arm. He set a club record with 34 touchdown passes. Rivers was sensational, finishing with the NFL's highest passer rating in his third year as a starter and the Chargers have made the playoffs all three years.
Undersized running back Darren Sproles proved his value with his versatile game that compensated for Tomlinson's injuries. But as a soon-to-be free agent, Sproles could have priced himself out of the Chargers' range. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson emerged into the team's top deep threat, becoming the first Chargers wide receiver to gain 1,000 yards since Curtis Conway in 2001.
Right guard Kris Dielman supplied the line's nasty edge and was rewarded with another trip to the Pro Bowl. Tight end Antonio Gates was also selected, despite battling toe and ankle injuries.
What went wrong: Losing injured Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman after one game was a significant blow, one in which the defense didn't recover from until the final two months.
Cornerback Antonio Cromartie was exposed when not playing behind a tenacious pass rush - from Merriman - and was well off his previous Pro Bowl form. Tomlinson is having a harder time stiff-arming Father Time, as nagging injuries now reduce this great player to occasional flashes of brilliance.
It's clear the offensive line's right side will need attention with tackle Jeromey Clary (consistency) and guard Mike Goff (free agent) both with issues. The fullback position isn't critical in Turner's system, but two rookies, Jacob Hester and Mike Tolbert, struggled in their roles. The Chargers could look to upgrade their linebacker play inside, opposite leading tackler Stephen Cooper.
--OLB Jyles Tucker was given a contract extension when replacing Shawne Merriman this season and his play was spotty, although he finished with 5.5 sacks.
--DE Igor Olshansky, a former second-round pick, will become a free agent and there has been no movement by the Chargers to retain him.
--RB LaDainian Tomlinson is hoping to avoid surgery for his groin injury. He sat out the game in Pittsburgh and will attempt to heal the injury through rest unless surgery becomes a necessity.
--WR Malcom Floyd will be in the mix next year, despite being derailed down the stretch with a collapsed lung.