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Chargers are downplaying Super Bowl hype

| Sunday, Jan. 10, 2010

SAN DIEGO — Shawne Merriman wasn't taking the bait.

San Diego is awash with Super Bowl fever, and Merriman's Chargers are once again a popular pick to finally hoist the Lombardi Trophy four weeks from now in Miami.

"Is that what it is?" the outside linebacker said. "Oh, now we're Super Bowl favorites. I liked it better when we we're under the radar."

You're not going to hear any Super Bowl chatter from the Chargers this year. They've learned their lessons from seasons past, when they talked openly about it and fell short. They gagged away home-field advantage in a debacle against New England in January 2007, lost the AFC Championship Game in New England's freezing cold a year later despite Philip Rivers' game effort on a damaged knee, and were manhandled in Pittsburgh in last year's divisional round.

"We've been there before. We've been the popular pick to win the Super Bowl before and haven't," Merriman said. "Our whole mentality this year is completely different, in not looking too far ahead down the road. That's been the big key this year altogether, is not looking too far down the road."

The Chargers (13-3) will leave it to their fans and other fawning outsiders to plot the course to Miami and the route for a Super Bowl parade through downtown if the Bolts can secure the city's first big championship since they won the 1963 AFL title.

Will their disco ditty, "San Diego Super Chargers," finally ring true?

The Chargers are the NFL's hottest team entering the playoffs, riding an 11-game winning streak that earned them their fourth straight AFC West title and the conference's No. 2 seed, behind Indianapolis. It's tied for the fifth-longest winning streak to enter the playoffs since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

With that comes a bye week and the chance to rest starters such as Merriman and wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who've been playing hurt. They'll also get a head start on game-planning for their three potential opponents for their opener next Sunday: New England, Cincinnati or the New York Jets.

This is perhaps the most conducive path ever for the Chargers, whose strength of schedule was ranked 17th. With Rivers methodically tearing apart defenses with his passes to big targets Jackson, Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd, they amassed their winning streak against everyone from the mediocre AFC West to a sweep of the NFC East. Their last loss was nearly three months ago, when a 2-3 start appeared to leave them doomed.

The boobirds-turned-bandwagoneers feel the Chargers' path to Miami is unimpeded. Their opponent in the divisional round will be a New England team without Wes Welker, a Cincinnati team that already lost to the Chargers or a New York Jets team with a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback — although with the NFL's top defense and the league's best running game.

Should form hold and the Chargers face the Colts for a Super Bowl berth, fans already are pointing to San Diego's recent dominance over Indy, including playoff victories against Peyton Manning's team the last two seasons. The Chargers won at Indianapolis in the divisional round two years ago, then eliminated the Colts with an overtime victory in San Diego last January in the wild-card round.

Still, the Chargers refuse to bite.

"I think everyone knows what we want to accomplish," said coach Norv Turner, who's been credited as the steadying force as the Bolts shuffled their lineup due to injuries, particularly on the offensive line and on defense. "That's been from the start, but I'm not going to get ahead of myself and I'm not going to let my guys get ahead of themselves."

After the Chargers' second-stringers rallied to beat the lowly Redskins, 23-20, last week, Turner's message to his squad was this: "In this league, if you want to do something, you have to go earn it. That's been a great lesson learned by a lot of people in our organization.

"There have been times obviously in the past where people pick you and it's a foregone conclusion in someone's mind," Turner said. "It is not a foregone conclusion in anyone's mind. We know that we're going to play an awfully good football team and we're going to have to play at our best to move to the next round of the playoffs."

Experience is the big difference between this Chargers team and the one that was 14-2 in 2006, had a bye week and then washed out in a flood of miscues against the Patriots.

That was Rivers' first playoff start and just the second playoff game for LaDainian Tomlinson. It was also the first postseason appearance for Merriman's draft class, which included Jackson and defensive end Luis Castillo. Darren Sproles was in that class, but missed that season with a broken leg.

"Myself included, I had a great year, but I was still inexperienced to the point of being in the playoffs and having everything on the line in one game," said Merriman, who had 17 sacks that season despite serving a four-game steroids suspension.

"Experience is everything when you get to a situation like this," Merriman said. "We've still got to go out and win. Experience is not going to get us a win, but it definitely helps us to understand what we need to do to win."

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