San Diego is flying high

Times Staff Writer

The five-passenger jet helicopter lifted off from a small airport near Qualcomm Stadium, nosed forward and turned north. With star running back LaDainian Tomlinson onboard, heading to an appearance on the "Tonight Show," the San Diego Chargers weren't taking any unnecessary chances -- the luxury chopper, decked out down to the individual iPod docking stations, had two engines and two pilots.

Tomlinson, accompanied by his wife, zoomed up the coast at 150 mph, peering out at dolphins, surfers and a $75-million mansion in Corona del Mar that merited a quick circle. Then, pilot Lance Strupf cut inland, skimming the Los Angeles skyline and roaring over the Hollywood sign before touching down in Burbank.

Life's pretty sweet when you're the favorite to be selected NFL most valuable player, and Tomlinson and his team are occupying some rarefied airspace. The Chargers, who play host to Denver today in hopes of sweeping the Broncos for the first time in 24 years, might be the AFC's best all-around Super Bowl contenders.

Like the helicopter that ferried Tomlinson to Jay Leno's show, the Chargers are loaded with offensive options and backup power.

Not only do they have the best running back in football, but a surprisingly polished first-year starter in quarterback Philip Rivers, possibly the league's best tight end in Antonio Gates, and a solid defense that's only getting better as their best players return from injuries and a suspension.

Whereas San Diego (10-2) has been on a steady ascent, riding a league-best six-game winning streak, several title hopefuls are rapidly losing altitude.

So, heading into the final quarter of the season, a look at the other division leaders and why each is both a Super Bowl contender and pretender:

* Indianapolis (10-2)

A contender because ... Peyton Manning is the quarterback. He might have a spotty record in clutch games, but there's no denying Manning's poise under pressure. He gave the Colts a chance in last season's divisional loss to Pittsburgh, but their hopes fluttered away on the wings of a Mike Vanderjagt shank.

A pretender because ... their run defense stinks. Indianapolis has given up a league-high 5.1 yards per carry, a big reason the Colts have lost two of three games.

* New England (9-3)

A contender because ... since 2001, no team has come close to the Patriots in terms of postseason success. The winning combination of Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady has secured three Super Bowl rings for the franchise, and the Patriots are even better on the road this season than they are at home.

A pretender because ... the New England running game isn't where it needs to be. Corey Dillon and rookie Laurence Maroney haven't produced the yards required to give the Patriots a balanced attack. That's a problem in the grind-it-out months of December and January.

* Baltimore (9-3)

A contender because ... they have been confident and effective on offense since Brian Billick took over play-calling duties six games ago. Yes, the Ravens stalled in their Nov. 30 loss to Cincinnati, but before that they had won five in a row and averaged 338.2 yards per game.

A pretender because... there's a good chance they'll have to hit the road at some point in the postseason, and they're often sloppy away from home. Although Baltimore is 4-2 on the road this season, the Ravens were less than sharp in games at Cleveland, Denver, Tennessee and Cincinnati.

* Chicago (10-2)

A contender because ... the Bears have dominated most of their opponents this season, outscoring them by a gaudy 318-150. They've also had at least two take-aways in every game this season, including five in each of the last two weeks.

A pretender because ... they have the unpredictable Rex Grossman starting at quarterback. He can look magnificent on one play and cover-your-eyes bad on the next. Unless he gets his turnover problems in check in the next four weeks, his coaches might be tempted to hand the offense over to capable backup Brian Griese.

* Dallas (8-4)

A contender because ... the Cowboys have found their groove with Tony Romo, this season's version of the out-of-nowhere Tom Brady story. Dallas has won four in a row and, with a two-game lead in the NFC East, is on its way to its first division title since 1998.

A pretender because ... the Dallas safeties are awful in coverage. The Cowboys have tried three free safeties and have yet to find the right combination. While Roy Williams is good against the run and hits hard, he's no superstar when it comes to covering receivers. Maybe the just-signed Tony Parrish will be the answer.

* New Orleans (8-4)

A contender because ... the Saints are stocked with offensive weapons and are the league's only team averaging 400 yards per game. Quarterback Drew Brees has been outstanding, and Sean Payton is a coach-of-the-year candidate.

A pretender because ... the New Orleans defense is suspect, even though it's coming off a great game in a victory over San Francisco. A bigger test comes tonight against white-hot Romo and the Cowboys.

* Seattle (8-4)

A contender because ... quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and running back Shaun Alexander, two key components to the Seahawks' 2005 Super Bowl run, are returning to full strength. That should give defensive coordinators pause.

A pretender because ... they drop passes, can't consistently stop the run, and, when they win, often just scrape by -- how else can they explain their winning record despite being outscored, 263-260? No other winning team is on the wrong side of that ledger.

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