Is This The Year?

Over the course of several years, the San Diego Chargers developed a reputation as a team that couldn't carry its regular season success into the playoffs.

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Though the Chargers may have shed themselves of that reputation with two postseason victories last season, the injuries that played a considerable role in ending their playoff run could be just as haunting in 2008.

Oddsmakers from have made San Diego -9 point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for Saturday’s game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 58% of bets for this game have been placed on San Diego -9 (View NFL Football bet percentages).

The Chargers hope to overcome injuries to some of their key players as they host the Carolina Panthers in each team's season opener Sunday.

San Diego won the AFC West with a 12-4 record in 2004, before getting upset in a wild card matchup with the New York Jets. Two years later in 2006, the Chargers put together a league-best 14-2 record, only to lose their first playoff game to New England.

San Diego had gone 12 years without a playoff win before ending the drought by defeating Tennessee in a wild card game in January. The Chargers then beat Indianapolis on the road before falling 21-12 to New England in the AFC championship game.

Though it was a largely successful postseason for San Diego and first-year coach Norv Turner, the Chargers were likely left wondering what might have been had they avoided injuries to two-time defending NFL rushing champion LaDainian Tomlinson, quarterback Philip Rivers and four-time Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates.

Tomlinson carried the ball twice in the title game before heading to the sideline with a sprained left knee. Rivers played the whole game despite his own knee injury, which affected his performance and required reconstructive surgery days later. Gates made two catches for 17 yards, then had offseason surgery to repair a tear in the plantar plate of his left foot.

All three players were nursing their injuries into training camp, but are expected to play in the season opener.

"I'm looking forward to it," said Tomlinson, who led the NFL with 1,474 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in 2007. "It seems like it's been a long preseason. ... I'm excited about this week and excited to get back on the football field."

Tomlinson said his knee is "100 percent ready to go," and that he has no concerns about testing it early in the season. Rivers and Gates haven't progressed quite as much, but expect to improve as the season continues.

Rivers said his knee "feels better than I could have imagined it. It's going to be really key to keep staying on top of it. I've been told by many people that know the deal that it's going to get tired if you let it. It's the strength. It'll run out of gas quicker. Just keep filling up the tank."

Gates isn't 100 percent, but said, "The more I get out there, the more reps I get, the more I get used to it. That's all I can really do at this point, is just go out and play as hard as I can and let everything else take care of itself.''

San Diego's Shawn Merriman is taking the same approach against the advice of medical professionals. Four doctors have recommended the star outside linebacker have surgery to repair two torn ligaments in his left knee, but Merriman decided to play this season before addressing the injury.

"To be as simple as possible, I just want to play football," Merriman said. "That's what it comes down to. I know what's on the table, I know what's on the line. I put a lot of work in this and I want to play."

If Merriman and the Chargers' other marquee players can shake their injuries, the team is considered a favorite to win its fourth AFC West title in five years and perhaps even represent the conference in the Super Bowl.

"I know we've still got a great group of guys that play at a high level. We've been fortunate enough to keep our core players. So we've just got to keep pushing at it," Tomlinson said. "I'm just excited at the kind of team we have and the opportunity we have, and doing something special."

While the Chargers will welcome back their stars with open arms, the Panthers will have top receiver Steve Smith on the sideline. Coach John Fox suspended the three-time Pro Bowler for the season's first two games after he punched cornerback Ken Lucas in practice and broke his nose.

"Distractions can hurt your team, but it depends on how it's dealt with," said newly signed linebacker Landon Johnson. "Coach Fox did a great job of dealing with all that stuff."

Fox, though, could be on the hot seat if the Panthers miss the playoffs for the third straight season. They went 7-9 in 2007, including seven losses in their last 10 games.

"Going 8-8 and 7-9, that doesn't cut it in this league," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "If you don't perform well, you're looking to get run out extremely quick."

Much of that burden falls on Delhomme, who missed the last 13 games of last season with a right elbow injury after a strong start. Without him, the Panthers fell to 29th in the league with 284.9 total yards per game.

Delhomme's return, the selection of running back Jonathan Stewart in the first round of the draft, and the additions of veteran receivers Muhsin Muhammad and D.J. Hackett could help Carolina bounce back.

"I think we're a lot better than last year," Delhomme said.

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