Matt Wilhelm spent this weekend at the poker, blackjack and baccarat tables of the Bellagio in Las Vegas. As perfect as that may sound, Wilhelm has bigger plans for the same time next year: preparing for the Super Bowl.
Wilhelm, the Elyria Catholic and Ohio State graduate, is still hurting after his San Diego Chargers were ousted 21-12 on Jan. 20 by the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game. As an inside linebacker, Wilhelm was part of the defense that limited the record-setting Patriots offense to its second-lowest output of the season. But it wasn’t good enough, as the banged-up San Diego offense settled for field goals and the Chargers headed home for the offseason.
“Obviously everybody’s disappointed,” Wilhelm said Thursday by phone from San Diego. “We’re extremely confident in our abilities. I like how we matched up against them.
“The feeling is we let New England off the hook. That makes us hungrier for next year. We’d love to get back at them.”
Wilhelm isn’t just dreaming big. He looks at the Pro Bowlers on the San Diego roster and the bumpy path they overcame this year, and he sees a future filled with possibility.
“Everyone can see, once we’re on the same page and have one common goal, those goals are easily attainable for a team as talented as we are,” Wilhelm said. “It took going through trials and tribulations on Sundays to realize how good we really are if firing on all cylinders. Our eight-game winning streak proved that.”
The Chargers won eight in a row before falling to the Patriots. It was quite a recovery from a tumultuous ride that began in the aftermath of a home playoff loss to the Patriots after the 2006 season. Veteran coach Marty Schottenheimer was fired after going 14-2, retread Norv Turner was hired and the Chargers opened the season 1-3.
“General manager A.J. Smith has done an exceptional job. He has a master plan for this organization,” Wilhelm said. “Us reaching as far as we did this year is the first step to getting back there year after year after year, and facing the Colts, Patriots, whoever.
“I see the San Diego Chargers making a push for the Super Bowl every year for the next four, five, six years.”
The timing works out perfectly for Wilhelm. He turns 27 on Saturday, has a contract through 2011 and is coming off his first year as a starter. Oh, yeah, his wife, Vanessa, is pregnant with their first child, who’s expected in March. He’s a boy and his name’s Mason.
“That will be the highlight of the offseason,” said Wilhelm, who lives in San Diego but keeps a condominium in Lorain. They’ll be back in the summer to introduce Mason to family and friends.
The birth of Mason will cap a watershed year for Wilhelm, who made his first career start in the opener. For the season he had three interceptions, 120 tackles (second on the team), a sack and a fumble recovery. He made a career-high 18 tackles at Minnesota and intercepted Peyton Manning in a win over the Colts. He did it all despite being limited early with an injury.
He tore a calf muscle during an individual pass-rush drill in training camp after being kicked in the calf a few days earlier. He sat out the rest of camp, but returned to start in the opener. Then early in Week 2 versus New England, he felt it pop again while covering a punt. It was a strain rather than a tear, but it kept him out of action for Week 3.
“It was tough for me personally,” Wilhelm said. “The shoes I had to fill were extremely large. Donnie Edwards was so productive for so long with the Chargers.
“Myself, my teammates, the organization, the fans were expecting a lot out of me. The setback was tough, but it all worked out in the long run.”
The 6-foot-4, 245-pounder was a fourth-round pick in 2003 and spent much of his first two years inactive on game days. The personal growth in 2007 only whetted Wilhelm’s appetite.
“We had so much success in my first year as starter, it was a confidence boost,” he said. “Now I want to go to the next level and be a Pro Bowl-type player, an All-Pro.”
Wilhelm was in the middle of a mini-controversy when cameras caught him and quarterback Philip Rivers yelling across the field at Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler at the end of the Chargers’ 23-3 win on Christmas Eve. Wilhelm led the Chargers with 12 tackles, including one for a yard loss that ended a drive at the 2-yard line in the fourth quarter.
“We had a dominating performance against them, when they were jawing all night,” Wilhelm explained. “Cutler called me some obscene names. It was reciprocation.
“I don’t regret it. The media turns it into whatever they want to. We beat them handily two times this year. I look forward to seeing them next year.”
So, who does Wilhelm like Sunday in the Super Bowl?
“My gut tells me the Patriots, it’s just their year,” he said. “But I really want the Giants to win. Just to throw the one in the right side of the column — 18-1.”
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.