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The Arizona Cardinals are in the Super Bowl and the Chargers aren’t.

That thought makes the Bolts’ missed opportunity in the 2006 season glare even more painfully bright. It’s that hot summer sun that forces you to look away or you’ll blind yourself.

After a 2008 season, when the Chargers were suddenly exposed at several positions, that 2006 season upset playoff loss to the New England Patriots (why didn’t you fall down with that late interception instead of returning it and fumbling, Marlon McCree?) following a 14-2 regular season is starting to look like the beginning of the end of the LT Chargers rather than just a missed opportunity.

What better year to make it to the Super Bowl than this season when you can line up opposite the Arizona Cardinals?

I wasn’t one of those persons bellowing that the window of opportunity was closing on the Chargers after that mystifying playoffs loss to the Patriots two years ago. I thought this team’s window was propped open another three or more years.

Why wouldn’t it be open with Philip Rivers at quarterback, LaDainian Tomlinson at running back and a young cast of defensive ends, linebackers and defensive backs?

But the right side of the offensive line that seemed solid with veteran Mike Goff and young Shane Olivea got old. Olivea’s game went into decline with off-field problems and Goff got injured and old.

Defensive ends Luis Castillo and Igor Olshansky don’t create enough pass pressure without Shawne Merriman on the field. They might be better suited for a 4-3 defense.

Without a pass rush, the Chargers were exposed at strong safety on deep balls.

The most optimistic element the Chargers have going for them is Rivers is only entering his fourth year as a starter.

Dan Fouts, the Bolts’ Hall of Fame quarterback, said it took three years before he really understood reading defenses and was ready as an NFL quarterback.

Rivers’ just broke Fouts’ record for touchdown passes in a season with 34 and led the NFL with a rating of 105.5. According to Fouts’ timetable, Rivers’ best seasons are still to come.

I have a hard time believing that Tomlinson isn’t still an elite NFL back. I say he was slowed by injuries, poor blocking up front and too many play calls that have him predictably running off left tackle (that’s been going on since Cam Cameron was the offensive coordinator under Marty Schottenheimer).

But his expensive contract could lead to a premature end to his time with the Chargers. I hope that’s not the case. I hope either the Chargers decide they can’t let him go or he agrees to a new a contract that makes the numbers balance better for the Bolts to sign other players.

In 2006, Schottenheimer worried about his reputation as a coach that can win big playoff games. He hammered his team for two weeks the Bolts had a bye before playing the Patriots — about the intensity required of the playoffs. The result was the Chargers played tight against the Patriots.

The window soon closed on Schottenheimer when he tried to pull a power play on general manager Smith and team president Dean Spanos by hiring his brother, Kurt Schottenheimer, as his defensive coordinator to replace Wade Phillips, now on the hot seat as the Dallas Cowboys’ head coach.

Spanos was left with no choice but to let Marty go.

Now, with injuries during the playoffs to Tomlinson and Gates the last two years and Rivers in the 2007 season, the Chargers’ have come up short of the Super Bowl again.

For the Chargers to keep their window open, Smith and his personnel department have make some moves that simulate the bountiful drafts of 2004 and 2005.

But remember that in today’s NFL, rebuilding plans don’t necessarily take three, four or five years as they did in the era before free agency. Teams can overnight find a way to the Super Bowl.

How else could the Arizona Cardinals make it?

— TOM SHANAHAN

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