Sports Illustrated Makes Its Chargers Prediction

They say 9-7; how about 11-5?

The annual Sports Illustrated NFL Preview issue is in.

Philip Rivers and Nick Hardwick are on the cover. The Chargers are predicted to win the AFC West for the fourth straight year.

Everything is pretty upbeat — until you read the Chargers are barely pushing .500.

Sports Illustrated picked the cover boys (who are only on the cover of the West Coast edition), who are coming off an injury-plagued 13-3 season, to lose four more games in 2010 to finish 9-7.

They'll be good, not great. They'll play winning football but barely scrape by.

It's cautious optimism, and maybe it's not surprising. Much of what made the Chargers a sexy preseaon pick in the past is long gone.

Vincent Jackson isn't here. Marcus McNeill isn't here. Shawne Merriman, battling an Achilles' ailment, is only half here. LaDainian Tomlinson, Jamal Williams, Kassim Osgood and Antonio Cromartie are all elsewhere. The AFC West is deeper.

But since preseason predictions are made for talking points, let's talk. Here's a new prediction: the Chargers will fare no worse than 11-5.

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Now three reasons why:

Balance. Running back Ryan Mathews is absolutely for real. He'll cut and run past you. He'll lower his head and run through you. We'll see how he holds up as a receiver, but he's already the team's best downfield runner since Michael Turner. Forget the players they lost. The Chargers' biggest offseason move was adding the physical running presence they sorely lacked in last year's playoff loss to the Jets. Between Rivers' arm and Mathews' legs, it's pick your poison for defenses.

Improved defense. Cromartie's tackling ability and attitude will not be missed. This unit is better off with Antoine Cason as its No. 2 cornerback. Eric Weddle has gradually improved over his first three years in the league. By the end of this year, he'll be recognized as one of the top safeties in the game. Every position has depth, and if a motivated Merriman steps up in his contract year (as he should), this defense takes a giant leap forward from '09.

Schedule. Yes, there are four nationally televised games, and the first home game is on Sept. 19. But have you taken a closer look at the Chargers' 2010 schedule? It's the third easiest in the league. The Chargers play no early games on the East Coast. They don't face a team from the NFC East. Instead, they draw the weak NFC West. Something would have to go very wrong for the Chargers to lose seven games. 

Complete Coverage: San Diego Chargers

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