SAN DIEGO — A lot has changed for the San Diego Chargers since they last made the postseason.
Make that almost everything.
There’s a rookie coach and general manager, a new offense and 37 players on the 53-man active roster who’ve never been in a postseason game going into Sunday’s wild-card matchup at Cincinnati, the last team to beat the Bolts.
Only seven players remain from 2009, when the Chargers followed a 13-3 regular season with a playoff face-plant, losing at home to the New York Jets in the divisional round.
Six of them have playoff experience — quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, center Nick Hardwick, right guard Jeromey Clary, safety Eric Weddle and punter Mike Scifres.
Backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst was the inactive third quarterback all that year, as he was the previous two seasons, when the Chargers also made the playoffs. Whitehurst was with Seattle when it went to the postseason in 2010 but didn’t play.
Ten Chargers have playoff experience with other teams: linebacker Jarret Johnson, left tackle King Dunlap, cornerback Crezdon Butler, running backs Ronnie Brown and Danny Woodhead, fullback Le’Ron McClain, wide receiver Eddie Royal, defensive end Lawrence Guy, linebacker Reggie Walker and cornerback Richard Marshall.
Everyone else is a newbie.
“We’re younger, more vanilla-green mentality-wise,” Weddle, a Pro Bowler, said of the current Bolts.
“There are so many guys that haven’t been through the playoffs, for one; haven’t played together for that many years like we did in those years.
“At some positions we were better talent-wise and some on this team are better. I think this is more of a team. We rely more on each other in all three phases than we did in those playoff years and I think ultimately that could take us farther.”
Gates and Scifres are the longest-tenured Chargers, joining the team as rookies in 2003. This is the sixth time they’ve reached the playoffs dating to 2004, when Marty Schottenheimer was the coach.
Hardwick was drafted in 2004 and also is in the playoffs for the sixth time. Rivers also joined the Chargers in 2004, but Drew Brees was still the starting quarterback. Rivers led the Chargers to four straight playoff appearances from 2006-09 and is 3-4 as the starter.
In 2009, Norv Turner was in his third season as coach and LaDainian Tomlinson was in his ninth and final year with the Bolts. The window of opportunity slammed shut on what some believed was the most talented roster in the NFL.
This Chargers team looked cooked on Dec. 1, when a 17-10 home loss to the Bengals dropped it to 5-7 under rookie coach Mike McCoy.
The Chargers responded by winning their final four games and getting a lot of outside help to end their three-year drought by claiming the AFC’s final playoff spot.
Playing a series of win-or-else games has helped prepare the Bolts for the playoffs, Rivers said.
“This is a new territory for the bulk of our team, for this team,” Rivers said.
“But we’ve been in the playoff-type deal for four weeks because you lose another one, you’re done. But we’ve been in that mode. I don’t think our mindset has to change or shift gears. We didn’t get to relax in the month of December because we had some things wrapped up. It’s been playoff football for a month.”
Gates said the Chargers are playing with confidence, but the veterans still have advice for the playoff newcomers.
“We understand that it’s very hard to get to this point,” the star tight end said.
“It’s very hard to be playing a playoff game. You’ve just kind of embrace that situation. That’s kind of the message we’re sending is that there’s no tomorrow. You’ve got to go out and play every play like literally it’s your last play because it might be. You never know what play might change the game.”
Rookie linebacker Manti Te’o agrees, saying he wants to “take advantage of it because you don’t know when your next opportunity will come.”
Te’o, the former Notre Dame star, said he learned to keep things in perspective after the Fighting Irish were routed by Alabama in the BCS national championship game last season.
“It’s easy to come into this game and get too anxious to the point where you freeze,” Te’o said.
“What you want to do is accept it for what it is. It’s a playoff game. The winner moves on and the loser goes home. At the end of the day you’ve got to line up, know your keys, know your reads, study the offense and play ball. That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
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