The San Diego Chargers and Chicago Bears could have had a date in Miami last February. Maybe they should have had a date considering the Chargers had the best record in the NFL at 14-2 and the Bears cruised through the NFC.
That Super Bowl matchup never happened, of course, because the Chargers let New England score 11 points in the final 4:36 of a 24-21 AFC divisional playoff loss. That led to the firing of coach Marty Schottenheimer and the hiring of Norv Turner.
So now the Chargers have to be content with hosting the NFC champions on Sunday in one of the featured games of the NFL's opening weekend.
Some consolation.
``It's something that eats at you,'' Turner says. ``I've ended the year with playoff games like that, and you know it's a long time before you can do anything about it.''
Turner was 59-83-1 in previous head coaching jobs with Washington and Oakland and walks into a situation where he's expected to win big.
Likewise, expectations are again high for the Bears, who were 29-17 losers to Indianapolis in the Super Bowl.
Given that Chicago QB Rex Grossman's turnover problems extended from the Super Bowl into the preseason, the Bears will be leaning heavily on their defense.
Interestingly, it is that Bears' defense the Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson is seen shredding in commercials for an about-to-be released Nike commercial.
Another subplot: Ron Rivera, the Bears' defensive coordinator the past few years, is now on Turner's staff in San Diego. After interviewing for the Chargers' head coaching job, he was let go by Chicago.
``If I were on the coaching staff out there, I would pick his mind constantly,'' Chicago wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. ``If I were a player out there, I would be asking about all the guys.
``They've got a good advantage with coach Rivera out there, but you've got to line up, you've got to play. It's still a game of talent. Rivera can't be out there.''
No he can't, but there's enough Super Bowl caliber talent on both teams to make this game worthwhile.
The season opened Thursday in Indianapolis, where the Super Bowl champion Colts beat New Orleans 41-10.
In other games Sunday, Atlanta is at Minnesota; Miami at Washington; Denver at Buffalo; Kansas City at Houston; Carolina at St. Louis; New England at the New York Jets; Philadelphia at Green Bay; Pittsburgh at Cleveland; Tennessee at Jacksonville; Detroit at Oakland; Tampa Bay at Seattle and the New York Giants at Dallas.
There are two Monday night games: Baltimore at Cincinnati, at 7 p.m. EDT, followed by Arizona at San Francisco at 10:15.
New England (12-4) at New York Jets (10-6)
This is Eric Mangini's second season as Jets coach but his fourth game against his former mentor Bill Belichick. The teams split in the regular season, and the Patriots won a first-round playoff meeting in Foxborough 37-16 before reaching the AFC title game and losing in Indianapolis 38-34 after leading 21-3.
The Patriots did a major upgrade in their receiving corps during the offseason, signing Donte' Stallworth and tight end Kyle Brady, and trading for Randy Moss, although Moss didn't play in the preseason and may not play in the opener because of a hamstring injury.
Even though the season is just starting, some Jets fans already are suggesting that QB Chad Pennington, so-so in exhibitions, be replaced by second-year-man Kellen Clemens.

Atlanta (7-9) at Minnesota (6-10)
These may be two of the league's worst teams, but this game is notable because Michael Vick is no longer the QB for Atlanta and Joey Harrington is. Vick, who faces a prison term after his dogfighting plea, hasn't been cut yet, but he will be.
The Vikings' will go with second-year QB Tarvaris Jackson. If Minnesota is to have any hope this season, rookie RB Adrian Peterson will have to carry the offense with his legs.

Baltimore (13-3) at Cincinnati (8-8) (Monday night)
This is two-thirds of a three-team race with Pittsburgh in the AFC North.
Marvin Lewis' background is defense, but his Bengals have been stronger on offense. Brian Billick, an offensive guru, has had consistently good defenses during his eight seasons with the Ravens, but never a high-quality offense.
The Ravens' fortunes were supposed to change when Steve McNair came over last year from Tennessee, but McNair has been battered a lot and his receivers are average. This year's offensive hope is Willis McGahee, obtained from Buffalo to replace Jamal Lewis at running back.

Arizona (5-11) at San Francisco (7-9) (Monday night)
Ken Whisenhunt, who replaced Dennis Green as Cardinals coach, is getting good reviews, and second-year quarterback Matt Leinart has broken new ground by making it into a Manning family commercial. There's other first-rate talent in receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, safety Adrian Wilson and linebacker Karlos Dansby, but the offensive line is questionable.
The 49ers spent their offseason money on defenders, notably free-agent cornerback Nate Clements and linebacker Patrick Willis, their first-round pick. They have to hope Frank Gore, who missed the preseason with a broken hand, can return quickly to his breakout form of last season, when he led the NFC in rushing.

New York Giants (8-8) at Dallas (9-7) (Sunday night)
Nobody expects much of the Giants, which is usually when they have their best seasons. Eli Manning looked good in exhibitions, but was overshadowed by the retired Tiki Barber's continued Giants-bashing and Michael Strahan's absence - he finally showed up on Monday.
The key to the Cowboys will be the development of Tony Romo, who started fast after replacing Drew Bledsoe last season, then tailed off. Romo dropped a snap on a field-goal attempt that cost Dallas its playoff game in Seattle. Bill Parcells left and the more relaxed but less successful Wade Phillips is the coach.

Pittsburgh (8-8) at Cleveland (4-12)
The first game for Mike Tomlin, only the third Steelers' coach since 1969, against a downtrodden traditional rival. After a post-Super Bowl season filled with all sorts of mishaps, the Steelers need a comeback season from Ben Roethlisberger, whose misfortunes last season included a motorcycle accident, appendicitis and just plain shoddy play.
The Browns, beset by injuries and just plain bad luck, will start Charlie Frye at quarterback, although rookie Brady Quinn, who had an outstanding preseason, will probably get the call after a couple of games.

Philadelphia (10-6) at Green Bay (8-8)
This could be the last matchup between Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb, whose rivalry dates back to a 2004 NFC playoff game in Philadelphia. That was the game McNabb converted a late fourth-and-26 to help tie it, and Favre threw an interception in overtime that led to the Eagles' win.
Hopes are high in Philadelphia, a city that lives and dies with its football team. The same can be said in Green Bay, except that the population is a lot smaller - as are expectations.

Detroit (3-13) at Oakland (2-14)
These were the two worst teams in the league last year. Still, that didn't stop Lions QB Jon Kitna from suggesting Detroit could end up with double-digit wins this year. Kitna was the Lions' highlight last season with a league-high 372 completions for 4,208 yards and 21 TDs.
New Oakland coach Lane Kiffin, just 32 years old, inherits a pretty good defense. However, with No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell holding out, Kiffin gets to choose between Josh McCown and the recently signed Daunte Culpepper to play quarterback behind a bad offensive line.

Tampa Bay (4-12) at Seattle (9-7)
If QB Matt Hasselbeck and RB Shaun Alexander stay healthy, the Seahawks remain the best team in the balanced NFC West. Keeping them healthy, however, is in the hands of an offensive line that's still trying to replace Steve Hutchinson, who left after the 2005 season.
The Bucs have four quarterbacks, with 37-year-old Jeff Garcia starting. Four quarterbacks means no quarterbacks to some people - behind Garcia are Bruce Gradkowski, Luke McCown and Chris Simms, who still isn't healthy after his spleen injury last season.

Tennessee (8-8) at Jacksonville (8-8)
The Jaguars let QB Byron Leftwich go, meaning David Garrard has no challenger except Quinn Gray. The Titans have Vince Young, but he's lost two targets, Drew Bennett and Bobby Wade, plus running back Travis Henry.
The Titans won eight of their last 11 games last season, because of Young, Henry and cornerback/return man Adam ``Pacman'' Jones, who is suspended for the season. The Jaguars still have one of the game's best inside run defenses, featuring tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson.

Denver (9-7) at Buffalo (7-9)
Mike Shanahan decided last season it was more important to develop Jay Cutler as the long-term quarterback than to make the playoffs, so the Broncos missed the postseason. Bottom line: Cutler has a half-season's more experience now than he would have owned.
Buffalo started getting results last season from QB J.P. Losman, now entering his fourth season. The Bills are counting on running back Marshawn Lynch and middle linebacker Paul Posluszny being instant successes.

Carolina (8-8) at St. Louis (8-8)
Two teams that epitomize what the NFC is all about: mediocrity.
The Rams, as usual, feature offense. Marc Bulger remains one of the league's upper echelon quarterbacks, Steven Jackson is one of its top running backs, and Torry Holt still is a top wideout. One problem: The team voted nine players as captains (including Bulger, Holt and Jackson) and the league allows only five.
The Panthers have offensive questions and finished the preseason with three straight losses. But Julius Peppers remains one of the league's top defensive linemen and the front seven is still strong.

Miami (6-10) at Washington (5-11)
Jason Campbell has looked good in preseason after taking over at QB from Mark Brunell last season. Another plus was the Redskins stayed away from high-price-low production free agents for the first time since Dan ``The Fan'' Snyder bought the team in 1999. The one important signing: middle linebacker London Fletcher.
This is the head coaching debut for Cam Cameron in Miami. He's an offensive specialist on a defensive team. Trent Green, brought in to be the quarterback, is 37 and not a long-term answer.

Kansas City (9-7) at Houston (6-10)
The Chiefs hoped second-year man Brodie Croyle would win the QB job from journeyman Damon Huard. He didn't, which probably isn't a good thing for Herm Edwards' lads. Larry Johnson at RB and TE Tony Gonzalez are outstanding offensive weapons.
Matt Schaub, obtained in a trade with Atlanta, is the Texans' QB. To stay healthy, Schaub needs the protection that David Carr didn't get.

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