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Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2006 | The Atlanta Falcons are imploding in the NFC South at 5-6 with a “coach killer” at quarterback, Michael Vick.

The New York Giants are fading in the NFC East at 6-5 with a slumping quarterback, Eli Manning.

The Chargers are 9-2 and leading the AFC West. They have Philip Rivers at quarterback, LaDainian Tomlinson at running back, Shawne Merriman at outside linebacker (he returns this week from a four-game suspension), Nick Hardwick at center and Roman Oben at tackle.

If you don’t know the association between those names, records and teams, you haven’t been following the Chargers’ drafts in recent years.

Imagine if the Chargers had held onto their first-round draft pick in 2001 and selected Vick out of Virginia Tech.

The Chargers, instead of the Falcons, would be the team with Vick, a quarterback who flipped off his fans at his home stadium as he left the field following Sunday’s loss to the New Orleans Saints. And Tomlinson, who had one touchdown pass to Vick’s none last weekend, would be carving out his future Hall-of-Fame career with another team.

“Coach killer” is how commentator Jim Mora Sr., a former NFL head coach, described Vick a couple of weeks ago for his inability to work at the craft of playing quarterback in the NFL. Vick has gained a reputation around the league for not doing his homework and watching film, preferring to rely on his instinctive running ability.

Vick is so touchy about the subject of whether he can prove himself to be a legitimate NFL passer, he blamed his wide receivers for dropped balls in Sunday’s loss to the New Orleans Saints. Yes, those were costly dropped balls, but he’s supposed to be the team’s leader.

Have you ever heard Tomlinson or Rivers blame their teammates for a loss?

Tomlinson is as talented as a running back as he is humble as a man. When the Chargers sent the No. 1 pick of the draft to Atlanta, they received the Falcons’ first-round pick, the fifth choice overall, and used it to select Tomlinson.

The Falcons also sent the Chargers two draft picks and Tim Dwight. Although they didn’t pan out in the long run, Tomlinson’s presence still tips the scale in the Chargers’ favor. The Chargers have an MVP candidate who also is one of the few NFL players that, in the words of the immortal Paul Brown, “acts likes he’s been there before” when he scores a touchdown.

Now, having digested the thought of the Chargers not enjoying LT running up and down the field, imagine if the Chargers had hung onto Manning in 2004 instead of trading his draft rights to the New York Giants.

Manning has had his moments, but he’s slumping in his third season and doesn’t appear to be the team leader and stable influence on a team that Rivers is for the Chargers.

When Manning announced he wouldn’t play for the Chargers before the 2004 draft, Bolts general manager A.J. Smith drafted him anyway. He knew how badly the Giants coveted Manning and subsequently fleeced the Giants with a trade.

After the Giants took Rivers with the fourth pick of the draft, Smith, with the boldness of a riverboat gambler confident in the cards he held, called the Giants and asked if they were ready to talk about a trade. Smith sent Manning’s rights to the Giants in exchange for Rivers’s rights and three other draft picks that have greatly impacted the Chargers.

The third-round pick in 2004 turned out to be Hardwick, now a third-year starter for the Chargers at center.

The first-rounder in 2005 turned out to be Merriman, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowler last year.

The fifth-rounder in 2005 turned out to be left tackle Roman Oben, who solidified the Chargers’ offensive line in 2004 in their AFC West championship season. They sent the draft pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Oben, a veteran starter with a Super Bowl ring from the 2002 season. A severe foot injury ended Oben’s 2005 season midway through, but he’s back on the active roster providing depth and experience

Let’s see: Tomlinson for Vick in 2001, and Rivers, Hardwick, Merriman and Oben for Manning in 2004.

Those are five reasons the Chargers lead the AFC West and have gained momentum as favorites for a run at the Super Bowl.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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