Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
PITTSBURGH -- Shawne Merriman was hesitant to talk about the events of the San Diego Chargers' final game Sunday. After sitting out all but the season opener after a knee injury, he didn't feel he was equipped to comment on his team's 35-24 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC divisional playoffs.
Told the subject was the 2009 San Diego Chargers, the most dominant NFL pass-rusher from 2005 to '07 perked up.
"I see next year being a really good year for us," Merriman said. "And I see myself being a big part of it. There are some exciting possibilities."
Merriman said he can't wait to "explode into somebody next year." The thought of Merriman playing in Ron Rivera's defense (if he doesn't get hired as a head coach in the next few weeks) is an intriguing possibility for the Chargers.
The San Diego defense was in a unit-wide funk for the first half of the season as it struggled to find an identity without Merriman, who led all NFL players with 39.5 sacks in his first three NFL seasons. However, after Rivera took over for the fired Ted Cottrell at the midway point, the San Diego defense took off, and it sparked a wild comeback in the AFC West after the team had sputtered to a 4-8 start.
If Merriman witnessed one thing from the sideline in 2008 it's that he feels the team needs to have a sense of urgency from the beginning of the season. This was the second straight season that San Diego stumbled out of the gate only to rebound. In 2007, San Diego started 5-5 before going on a streak all the way to the AFC title game.
"We have to have that urgency from the jump," said Merriman. "We have to make it easier. We have to realize that there is urgency to the entire season."
Safety Eric Weddle also identified a lack of season-long urgency as one of the team's biggest needs.
"We have everything," Weddle said. "The pieces are here. We're close. But we have to play as one from the beginning of the season ... Doing it this way is tiring."
Don't expect wholesale changes in San Diego. The team is young and talented and the window for winning a titile hasn't closed. Merriman said in training camp, before his knee deteriorated, that he thought 2008 was the team's best opportunity since he arrived to win a Super Bowl. He said Sunday the expectations are still there.
"It'll be the same deal as this year," Merriman said. "We just need to take care of our business." He added that he could be ready for minicamp and he definitely will be ready for training camp.
The team, which has the No. 16 draft pick, probably will try to make some additions, perhaps on the offensive line, defensive line and at linebacker. But the core remains.
"It will be a goal to go to the Super Bowl again next year," linebacker Stephen Cooper said. "We have a strong team."
Here are some other key elements to San Diego's season-ending game Sunday:
The run stops here: The Chargers were confident that they'd be able to run well with Sproles as their primary back. Sproles sparked the team's wild-card win over Indianapolis with excellent running in the second half as he played for the ailing Tomlinson.
On Sunday, however, cold weather conditions and the Steelers' stout run defense neutralized Sproles as a rusher. The Chargers, who were in passing mode in the second half as they tried to catch up, ran the ball only 12 times.
"They stopped me," said the 5-foot-6, 181-pound Sproles. "That's a fast defense."
Sproles did make his typical impact though. He added 259 yards in the receiving and return game. Many league observers think Sproles will cash in on the free-agent market. Sproles said he likes his role in San Diego and wants to return.
"I hope this wasn't my last game with San Diego," Sproles said.
A miserable 14 minutes, 43 seconds: The game turned in the third quarter. San Diego ran one offensive play and had the ball for 17 seconds in the quarter. The Chargers' one offensive play was an interception on a deflection. San Diego then gave up the ball when a punt bounced off Weddle's helmet while he was blocking on the return.
The result was that San Diego's defense was on the field for nearly the entire third quarter.
"I knew we were on the field a lot, but 14:43? Wow," Weddle said. "It's tough ... But we didn't play well as a defense. We never gave our offense a chance."
Was this the end of the Rivera era? It will not be a surprise if Rivera starts getting phone calls about the open head-coaching jobs. The Lions inquired last week but Rivera put them off until the season ended.
San Diego's players wish the best for Rivera, but they know he's a cog for the team.
"We need him back," Weddle said. "He's a big part of it ... but we hope what's best for him and his family."
If the Chargers are going to live up to Merriman's hope for a strong start in 2009, keeping Rivera will be a big first step.