San Diego Chargers
Head coach: Marty Schottenheimer, fourth season
2004 record: 12-4
2004 rankings: Offense, 10th (346.4 yards/game); Defense, 18th (335.0 yards/game)
2005 strength of schedule: 23rd
From SportingNews.com: AFC West overview
The Chargers were the team of redemption in 2004. Their season began with coach Marty Schottenheimer and Drew Brees on the verge of losing their jobs, but the offense found its groove after a 1-2 start, thanks in large part to Brees' decision-making and a stout run defense. Tight end Antonio Gates' emergence as one of the best tight ends in the league didn't hurt, either.
San Diego won 10 of its next 11 games despite offensive centerpiece LaDainian Tomlinson nursing a groin injury. The season would eventually end in painful fashion with a 20-17 playoff loss to the Jets in overtime, after Nate Kaeding missed a 40-yard field goal that would have sent the Chargers to the second round.
Don't assume "Marty Ball" has been decommissioned. Tomlinson's injury last season forced the Chargers to open their attack a bit, but San Diego won't ignore its No. 1 option now that he's healthy again.
Still, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron won't be reverting to a conservative approach. The Chargers are looking for a stronger, balanced attack, and they shouldn't have a problem employing it now that Brees has found a rhythm with Gates and wide receiver Keenan McCardell. Having Reche Caldwell back will be a nice boost, too.
The offensive line played surprisingly well last year and it returns intact, though it has lost coach Hudson Houck. As for the rest of the offense, San Diego needs to get something more out of the receiving corps beyond the 35-year old McCardell. If Caldwell can stay healthy and Eric Parker can continue to improve, this could be a very good unit. But don't expect a great deal out of rookie wideout Vincent Jackson, who will spend this season learning the ropes unless injury forces him into the lineup.
Much credit should be given to defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who switched to the 3-4 scheme and got more out of this unit than anyone thought possible. The Chargers had a fantastic run defense (third in the league) thanks to impressive seasons from nose tackle Jamal Williams, defensive end Igor Olshansky and linebackers Donnie Edwards, Randall Godfrey and Steve Foley. And while the secondary struggled at times, the lack of a pass rush was partly to blame.
That's why San Diego drafted outside linebacker Shawne Merriman. If Merriman can have a Terrell Suggs-like rookie season, it would pay some nice dividends. In turn, cornerback Quentin Jammer has to play better or he'll face the same fate as Sammy Davis, who is expected to be replaced by Drayton Florence in the starting lineup.
Aside from the blown overtime field goal in the playoffs, Kaeding had a good rookie season. He should be rock solid now that he has his first year behind him. Punter Mike Scifres is one of the league's 10 best.
The truly exciting aspect of the Chargers' special teams this season will be rookie Darren Sproles, who is expected to take over the punt and kickoff duties. Despite standing just 5 foot 6, Sproles was one of the most exciting players in college football last season at Kansas State. For San Diego, he should be a dangerous Antwaan Randle El-type.
The Chargers will finish 10-6 and first in the AFC West.