Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2009 | A half-season ago — if you can define the Chargers’ long, strange trip that the 2008 season has been simply by virtue of number of games played — the Bolts were 3-5 and fired defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell.

A half-season later, the coach who was promoted to succeed Cottrell, Ron Rivera, is in demand.

NFL teams are calling to see if Rivera is available to interview for their vacant head-coaching jobs. Rivera “has declined overtures from several NFL teams,” according to the Chargers in a statement, and won’t talk with any teams until the Chargers’ season has ended.

“My sole focus and concentration right now is helping the Chargers win a championship,” said Rivera, formerly the Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator before he came to the Chargers as a linebackers coach in 2007. “I don’t want to let anything distract from our objective.”

That is all you need to know to recognize that the Chargers are viewed around the league as better than a 9-8 team after a first-round playoff win Saturday over the Indianapolis Colts.

Now the Chargers are facing the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday in an AFC Divisional playoff for the right to advance to the AFC Championship.

Back on Nov. 16, when the Chargers traveled to Pittsburgh for the season’s ninth game, they were still a bad team in only the second game of Rivera’s promotion. Yet they were beating the Steelers before losing 11-10 on a field goal in the final seconds.

You can be sure that in terms of the playoffs, the Steelers don’t view the Chargers as that stumbling, 4-5 team or even a team with a modest 9-8 record.

The NFL is a copycat league. So when teams want to interview your coach, the perspective is your franchise and coaches know what the heck they’re doing.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that said assistant coach is head coach material. Following the Chargers’ 14-2 season in 2006, the Bolts lost both their coordinators.

The Miami Dolphins hired former Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and he promptly went 1-15 and was fired. He also had been fired earlier in his career as the head coach at Indiana University.

The Dallas Cowboys hired former Chargers defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, and he’s rumored to be getting fired every other game. His Cowboys teams are considered underachievers.

Phillips’ 2007 Cowboys made the playoffs, but they were upset in the first round of the playoffs by eventual the New York Giants, the eventual Super Bowl champions. The 2008 team, one of the Super Bowl preseason favorites, like the Chargers, didn’t make the playoffs.

But what people notice is the Chargers showed vast improvement on defense in their final eight games under Rivera. They only went 4-4 in those games, but they finished with three straight wins in December when Rivera’s changes had time to take effect.

In the first eight games, the Chargers’ turnover ratio was minus-1 (one more turnover committed by the Chargers vs. turnovers forced by the Chargers).

In the final eight games, the ratio was a plus-five. The Bolts also gave up 6.4 fewer points per game in the final eight games.

In the final four games, the Chargers allowed only 213.0 yards a game after giving 269.8 in the first 12. They intercepted eight passes in the final four games after picking off only seven in the first 12. They were giving up almost two touchdown passes a game (21) in the first 12, but only four in the past four games.

Before Cottrell was fired, the assumption for the decline in the defense was the lack of a pass rush without outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, who underwent reconstructive knee surgery following the first game.

But it appears one of the changes Rivera made, to simplify the defense, also was a factor. The players are reacting more and thinking less. It’s OK to read, but when you’re thinking, you’re usually not reacting in time to play a physical game.

“We all know offense wins games; defense wins championships, so our mindset is that in order to get to a championship we have to play physical football on defense,” outside linebacker Shaun Phillips said. “That’s what we plan on doing.”

They do it as well as they have been the last few weeks, they might not only extend their season, they might lose a defensive coordinator.

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

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