Charged up

STEVE MacFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 7:52 AM ET

Last year, the Carolina Panthers shocked everybody by winning the NFC crown and making it to the Super Bowl.

This year's surprise team may reside in the other conference.

San Diego made great strides this season, winning the notoriously tough AFC West with a 12-4 record after a dismal 4-12 finish a year ago.

But like the 2003 Panthers, the Chargers aren't considered a serious threat -- and that makes them even more dangerous.

They're favoured at home against the New York Jets for Saturday night's AFC wild-card game but nobody seriously believes the Bolts can win on the road against New England or Pittsburgh in the next round.

Don't count them out.

Many NFL fans considered Chargers quarterback Drew Brees down for the count last year -- the team even acquired QB Philip Rivers as a potential replacement on draft day -- but he responded with a Pro Bowl 2004 season.

For his effort, Brees was named comeback player of the year by The Associated Press yesterday.

Nothing would cap the young field general's season like a march to the big game.

A convincing win against the Jets, who beat San Diego 34-28 in Week 2, might finally get football fans to fall in line and give coach Marty Schottenheimer's club the respect it deserves.

Brees is looking forward to the rematch.

"That game feels like it was five seasons ago," Brees told the San Diego media this week when asked how his team has changed since the first meeting in New York. "I think we've come so far. At that time in the season, we hadn't really found ourselves and now we have. We started a great win streak and we want to start another win streak."

If Brees sounds confident, it might have a little to do with veteran teammates Donnie Edwards and Keenan McCardell.

Linebacker Edwards, a candidate for defensive player of the year despite being shunned in the Pro Bowl voting, told the young Chargers to be prepared for a new pace in the playoffs.

"I told them the speed is fast because we make it fast," said Edwards. "It's all about knowing what to do. In the pre-season, it's slower because people are unsure of their responsibilities. They're a little tentative. But in the playoffs, you know your responsibilities so that makes it lot faster."

McCardell, who joined San Diego at the trade deadline after holding out on Tampa Bay, has added more than just his playmaking talents at the wide receiver position.

He won a Super Bowl with the Bucs and knows what it takes to win.

"Every play in a playoff game really counts ... Every single play, from the first snap to the last snap," McCardell said when asked what advice he is giving to the younger players."The intensity will be a lot more than what the regular season is because it's do or die. Either you do and you keep going, or you die and you go home."

N.Y. JETS +6 1/2 AT SAN DIEGO: Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer cut down the team's reps in practice to keep his players fresh. He's never done that before but says, "This is a season of change." No kidding. Chargers 23, Jets 17.

ST. LOUIS +4 AT SEATTLE: There's upset potential here with St. Louis visiting its division rival. In Week 5 of the regular season, the Rams scored 23 unanswered points late in the fourth quarter and overtime to stun the Seahawks at Qwest Field. At home in Week 10, the Rams jumped to a quick two-touchdown lead over the 'Hawks and never looked back. Last chance for revenge. Seahawks 26, Rams 23.

DENVER +10 AT INDIANAPOLIS: If there's going to be one blowout this weekend, Indianapolis has the potential to make it happen at home. After resting its starters in Denver a week ago, Indy might get off to a slow start. They should come through in the clutch, though. Colts 30, Broncos 23.

MINNESOTA +6 AT GREEN BAY: Both meetings between the NFC North rivals finished the same way --Green Bay's Ryan Longwell booted a winner through the uprights as time expired. Why should we expect the third meeting to be any different? Packers 27, Vikings 24.

Last week: 8-8 straight up; 6-9-1 against the spread. Regular season: 158-98 straight up, 122-122-8 ATS.


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