More than most coaches in the NFL, Jim Fassel understands how meaningless preseason perceptions can be and how much fun Marty Schottenheimer must be having refuting them. When his Giants fell...

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More than most coaches in the NFL, Jim Fassel understands how meaningless preseason perceptions can be and how much fun Marty Schottenheimer must be having refuting them.

When his Giants fell on hard times last season, it cost him his job after seven years. He’s working as a senior offensive consultant for Brian Billick and the Ravens, hoping to land another coaching job.

Meanwhile, he takes encouragement from the way Schottenheimer has revitalized his career and the fortunes of the Chargers during their most exciting three months since Bobby Ross took them to the Super Bowl in the 1994 season.

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“Look at Marty Schottenheimer,” Fassel said. “Without a doubt, no question about it, he went from being probably the No. 1 guy to get fired this year to being everybody’s coach of the year. Go figure. But that’s the way it is.”

The Chargers (9-3), who host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers today, have a two-game lead on the Broncos in the AFC West after last week’s 20-17 victory over Denver. They have assured themselves of their first winning season since 1995 and have won six straight for the first time since the Super Bowl season.

“First and foremost, the attitude is different and what’s happened is the product of our decision to absolutely change the face of what went on last year (4-12),” Schottenheimer told reporters in San Diego. “I told them that everything and anything was under review, and what we did was go out and get some veteran players to help supplement the team.”

The rise of the Chargers has come on the shoulders of an unexpected source, quarterback Drew Brees. He was expected to take a back seat to rookie Philip Rivers, acquired from the Giants for Eli Manning on draft day.

“I didn’t complain because that’s not the type of person I am,” Brees said. “You’re going to get knocked down during your career. There are going to be times when people feel like you can’t do something. That was fine with me. But my attitude coming into the league was, I’m going to be successful, I’m going to win championships. At some point, I know it’s going to happen.”

When Rivers held out, Brees was given a chance to redeem himself and he has turned into the AFC’s likely comeback player of the year.

Brees has a quarterback rating of 103.1, third to Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger in the AFC, after finishing last season 67.5. The jump would be the most profound since the statistic was introduced in 1973. Ken Stabler’s 36-point jump from 1975 to 1976 (103.4) is the largest. Brees, Manning, Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper are all averaging four touchdowns for every interception, amazing when you consider Vinny Testaverde is the only quarterback to do it for a season. In 1998, he had 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions to lead the Jets to the AFC championship game.

“It’s difficult to say how much acquiring Rivers motivated Drew,” Schottenheimer said. “Knowing that he’s a great competitor, I’d bet it probably did. But to what extent, I don’t know. I do know he’s considerably more efficient.”

More important, they have quality players around him. LaDainian Tomlinson, always considered one of the league’s top runners, has become more effective now that Brees has tight end Antonio Gates and receiver Keenan McCardell. Tomlinson has 1,012 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns.


Brett Favre might start a game with a rookie center for the first time in his 14 NFL seasons.

Scott Wells, a seventh-round draft pick from Tennessee, is expected to get his first pro start today when the Green Bay Packers (7-5) face the Detroit Lions (5-7) at Lambeau Field. Grey Ruegamer, who started the last nine games, didn’t practice all week because of a sprained left ankle.

• New York Giants guard Chris Snee will not play against Baltimore because of a glandular infection.