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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Bolts Staying Focused

San Diego Tribune:
The Chargers have secured the AFC’s No. 2 seed, and they know what that means.

Nothing, really.

“I think going the bye route gives you an advantage,” head coach Norv Turner said. “It doesn’t guarantee you anything. You still have to play good.”

While teams fight for the coveted top two seeds and the bye week and at least one home game that are included, three of the past four Super Bowls have been won by a third, a fifth and a sixth seed.

A No. 2 seed has won four of the past 10 Super Bowls. A No. 2 seed has lost its first playoff game eight times over those 10 years.

As General Manager A.J. Smith has often said — just get in the tournament.

And after a 2-3 start, a beginning and middle of the season rife with injury, the Chargers are in the playoffs for the fourth straight year.

“I’m very proud of our players and coaches,” Smith said. “Our goal was to get to the playoffs. We have accomplished that, and in doing so we now have an opportunity to win a championship.

“To get in the tournament, you have to endure a long, hard, physical and demanding regular season. This team earned its way in, and I’m happy and excited for them.”

Smith knows the Chargers will benefit from the rest the No. 2 seed affords. But from his perspective the seed’s main benefit is that it eliminates a game.

Although getting the No. 2 seed has its own pitfalls, which the Chargers will now attempt to navigate with one regular season game remaining.

In 2006, the Chargers won their final 10 regular-season games to finish 14-2 and capture the AFC’s top seed. They played a final home game they needed to clinch that No. 1 seed, sat home for a week while the playoffs opened elsewhere and then hosted the New England Patriots — and lost 24-21.

No team is going to refuse a bye after playing 16 of the previous 17 weeks. The Chargers’ bye came in Week 5, so by next Sunday they will have played 12 straight weeks.

And starters playing one, two or three quarters against the Washington Redskins in the Jan. 3 regular-season finale likely will make little difference in how sharp they are come Jan. 16 or 17 in their divisional playoff game.

Maintaining a focus during the time off and practicing with purpose is going to be paramount.

“We have to use the bye smartly,” Turner said.

Players look back on three Januarys ago and believe the lead-up to that Patriots loss had something to do with the meltdown that occurred.

“We’d like to stay in a rhythm,” LaDainian Tomlinson said. “In ’06, we were like, ‘Well, let’s get everyone healthy.’ It didn’t work out to our advantage. That first game, we were a little rusty.”

Preventing that will be Turner’s main task, and he seemed primed for it immediately after Friday night’s victory over the Tennessee Titans.

“Every single guy is going to prepare to play next Sunday,” Turner said. “We’re going to practice the way we practice.”

Smith certainly had his opinion on Drew Brees playing in a meaningless 2005 season finale, when former coach Marty Schottenheimer started Brees, who ended up getting severely injured in what would be his last game as a Charger. But Smith has unequivocal trust in Turner. Plus, the two communicate daily.

“Coach Turner will give that great thought,” Smith said. “When he’s ready to make an announcement regarding our approach (against the Redskins), he will let us know.”

Turner said that after Friday’s practice the coaching staff will decide who plays against the Redskins.

By the time the Chargers play a meaningful game, it will have been three weeks since some of them were in a game. For some, it will have been four weeks or more.

But there are those among them who need it, and while Turner said his plan is fluid, it is almost certain some players won’t face the Redskins.

As much as anyone, outside linebacker Shawne Merriman can use time off. Merriman was in a protective boot after Friday’s game. Rehabbing instead of practicing most of the past seven weeks due to plantar fasciitis in his foot, Merriman has been playing Sundays with the aid of painkilling shots.

While he won’t be fully recovered until the plantar fascia completely tears or he gets the prolonged rest of an offseason, Merriman believes the bye will help him be stronger than he has since suffering his injury Nov. 8 at New York.

“Just knowing my body, I think it will,” he said. “For me it’s about doing what I’ve got to do to get on the field and be effective. I’m looking to be even more effective (in the postseason).”

Fellow outside linebacker Shaun Phillips got his long-injured ankle right last week, but he had his hip wrapped in ice as he left the field Friday after injuring it against the Titans.

Defensive end Jacques Cesaire missed Friday’s game with an elbow injury. Linebacker Kevin Burnett has missed two games with a neck injury. Almost every player plays through hidden injuries — aches, strains and just plain fatigue.

So the Chargers were pleased to be looking forward to some rest.

“It gets everyone healthy,” said cornerback Quentin Jammer, who like many others has been playing through various maladies much of the season. “It gets everybody back to 100 percent.”

Said left guard Kris Dielman of the bye: “It means the world. We have worked our (butts) off to get it … You get to rest. Linemen need it as much as anybody. We’ve been pounded pretty good every week for 16 weeks.”

2010 Schedule Set
: New England and Cincinnati victories today made them winners of their respective divisions and made them opponents of the Chargers in 2010.

NFL teams have 14 games set for them and then play teams in assigned divisions that finished in their same spot. As AFC West champions, the Chargers were awaiting the winners of the AFC East (New England) and AFC North (Cincinnati).

The Chargers home schedule for '10: Arizona, Denver, Jacksonville, Kansas City, New England, Oakland, San Francisco and Tennessee.

The away schedule: Cincinnati, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Oakland, St. Louis and Seattle.

Dates and times are announced in April.