Shawne Merriman (Shana Siler/SDBoltReport.com)
The Chargers head into the season seeking yet another AFC West title but oh so much more. If believing in window of opportunities, this seems to be a critical year for the Chargers to reach the second Super Bowl in franchise history.
Philip Rivers is back leading a potent offense, and Shawne Merriman's return from a serious knee injury should give the defense a boost.
But LaDainian Tomlinson, on the back side of 30, could be in his last year with the Chargers. And while the Chargers took care of Rivers with a new contract, others seeking deals include left tackle Marcus McNeil, wide receivers Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson and Merriman.
So if the Chargers are going to do something special - with this core group of players anyway - this seems to be the season.
Throw in the fact that the Chargers play in the watered-down AFC West, and a playoff invitation is all but in the mail.
But winning the division title isn't on the top of the Chargers' goals for 2009. They aim to do something super by advancing to the title game in Miami.
THREE KEYS TO THE SEASON
1. Outside linebacker Shawne Merriman returns to his Pro Bowl form to aid a woeful pass defense.
2. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson shows he still has game after turning 30 years old and coming off career-lows in rushing yards and carries.
3. The right side of the offensive line performs at a high level so one of the NFL's most potent attacks can be utilized to its fullest.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
RB Darren Sproles: After being designated the team's franchise player and given a $6 million contract, can the undersized Sproles take the pounding as a return man and a reliable back?
DT Jamal Williams: The three-time Pro Bowler is the key to the team's 3-4 alignment. If Williams falls victim to injury or Father Time, the Chargers' defense will be impacted.
ILB Kevin Burnett: A special teams standout in Dallas gets his first chance at starting. The Chargers are eager to add his athleticism to an active unit.
CB Antonio Cromartie: Two years ago Cromartie lead the NFL with 10 interceptions. It went to his head and he had only two picks last year and was routinely picked on by quarterbacks.
WR Vincent Jackson: Can he continue his ascend as one of the NFL's top receivers? He is coming off a 1,000-yard season, the first by a Chargers wideout since Curtis Conway in 2001.
QB Philip Rivers: He has a rich contract and is coming off a breakthrough season where he tied for the NFL lead with 34 touchdowns passes and was first with a 105.5 rating - both franchise marks. Can he reach those numbers again?