The Chicago Bears finished last season with the best record in the NFC, but lost in the Super Bowl.
The San Diego Chargers had the NFL's top overall record last year, but fell in the AFC divisional playoffs.
Those final defeats have stuck with both teams throughout the offseason, and each believes it has the experience and talent to end this season with a win.
The Bears and Chargers begin their quest to reach Super Bowl XLII when they meet in San Diego on Sunday in an early matchup between title contenders.
Chicago won its first seven games last season en route to a 13-3 finish and its second straight NFC North title. Led by a powerful defense, the Bears advanced to their first Super Bowl since 1986, but allowed 430 yards in a 29-17 loss to Indianapolis.
"We left a lot out there, one game, and we want to be the champs,'' said safety Mike Brown, who had a serious ligament injury to his foot end his 2006 season after six games.
"NFC champs doesn't really mean anything, we want to be the Super Bowl champs. We stated it last year that we wanted to be that, didn't quite get there. This year, hopefully we'll get an opportunity to play in that game again and the outcome will be different.''
Oddsmakers from Bodog.com have made San Diego -6.5 point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for today's game, the over/under has been set at 42.5 total points (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 73% of bets for this game have been placed on San Diego -6.5 (View NFL Football bet percentages).
The Chargers won their final 10 games to finish 14-2 and capture their second AFC West title in three years. San Diego had one of the top offenses in the league, averaging an NFL-high 30.8 points, but turned the ball over a season-high four times in its 24-21 loss to New England in its playoff opener.
"It's something that eats at you," new coach Norv Turner said. "The hardest thing about it is when you're in a game like that, and I've ended the year with playoff games like that, that you know it's a long time before you can do anything about it. It's such a long period of time for us to get back to that point, but I think that's something that's going to help us throughout the year.
"These guys want to get back to that situation and that position, so they can make amends.''
Turner was hired after Marty Schottenheimer was dismissed as the result of a nasty personality clash with general manager A.J. Smith.
The new coach has inherited a talented roster, led by reigning league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson. The All-Pro running back set NFL records with 31 touchdowns - 28 rushing - and 186 points, and won his first league rushing title with 1,815 yards.
Tomlinson has been eagerly awaiting the start of the regular season, as Turner sat the league's top runner during the preseason to protect him from injury.
"I'm pretty anxious," Tomlinson told the team's official Web site. "I've been waiting to get back on the field in a game situation for a while now. Now that it's finally here, I'm very excited."
In his only career game against Chicago, Tomlinson rushed 16 times for just 61 yards and a TD in a 20-7 loss on Nov. 2, 2003 at Soldier Field - the last meeting between the teams.
Defenses' focus on Tomlinson last year helped take some of the pressure off Philip Rivers in his first season as a starter. The Chargers are now looking for their Pro Bowl quarterback to continue to progress, starting with the opener.
"Week 1 we ought to be ready to roll, to cut it loose and not feel like we're in Week 1,'' said Rivers, who passed for 3,388 yards, 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2006.
The Bears are hoping for a more consistent season from their quarterback, as Rex Grossman looked like a MVP in some games but completely lost in others last year.
Grossman had seven games with a passer rating above 100, but three with a rating of 10.2 or lower, bottoming out with a 0.0 in the regular season finale against Green Bay.
"At this level, it's all mental and seeing the field and knowing exactly where your guys are going, the speed of the game,'' said Grossman, who threw for 3,193 yards, 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in 2006. "And just having all those games last year prepared me, and the game has slowed down a bit.''
Grossman is joined in the backfield by running back Cedric Benson, who will be in his first full season as a starter after Thomas Jones was traded to the New York Jets. Benson rushed for 432 yards on 88 carries and three touchdowns in his final seven games last season.
The offense should receive a spark from Pro Bowler Devin Hester, who set a league record with six TD returns as a rookie last season and will play occasionally at wide receiver this year.
Defensively, six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher returns to lead a unit that features Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Mark Anderson and a healthy Tommie Harris, who suffered a season-ending hamstring injury in the 12th game last year.
While Chicago believes it is the team to beat in the NFC, history is not on its side. This past year, Seattle became the first team since 1997 to win a playoff game after losing the Super Bowl the previous year, and no team has made a return trip to the Super Bowl after losing it the season before since Buffalo in 1993-94.
"We've heard about losing Super Bowl teams and what they're supposed to do. We haven't bought into that,'' Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "What we're buying into is that we think we have our best team coming this year.''
By: Staci Richards - theSpread.com - Email Us
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