http://www.usatoday.com/sports/football/nfl/chargers/home.htm Everyone loves visiting San Diego, thanks to its great weather, scenic beaches and friendly citizens. But the Chargers are eager to change that notion - as far as visiting NFL teams are concerned. The Chargers lift the curtain on the season at home on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys. It's the first of eight games at Qualcomm Stadium and the Chargers are hoping eight home wins are enough to warrant a return visit to the playoffs. The Chargers went 7-1 last year, which was among the reasons it reached the playoffs for the first time sine 1995. And if they want to return, they realize holding serve at home is going to be paramount to those chances. Why the importance? Figure that in addition to AFC West foes Kansas City, Oakland and Denver - all daunting to places to play in - there road slate includes both Super Bowl participants, plus the New York Jets and the Redskins. So with an away schedule that challenging, it's imperative the Chargers be stout at home. "Absolutely," Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees said. "Your goal every year is to win every game at home. And that's the kind of attitude we want to have - the fans know it, the players know it, everybody knows it. When they play in San Diego they are going to have to fight their butts off in order to hang in there." The Cowboys get the first chance to upset that scenario. And while the Chargers are slight favorites, they also know they enter the game at less than full strength. All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates won't suit up, as he serves the final games of his three-game suspension. Rookie outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, the team's top pick, is nursing a sore knee and likely won't go. And a pass defense that finished last year with the No. 31 ranking and has looked shaky in the exhibition season, must face savvy veteran Drew Bledsoe. "He knows with a certainty when a play comes in," coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "Not only does he know the play, he knows the reason behind the call." The reason why the Chargers are so bent in solidifying their home edge is obvious: many stumbles in Southern California will shatter the team's hopes of playing in January and beyond. "We've got some tough home games, too," added running back LaDainian Tomlinson of a schedule which includes the Steelers. "But we've got to take care of business at home." SERIES HISTORY: 8th meeting. The Dallas Cowboys lead series, 5-2, but the San Diego Chargers won the last meeting, a 32-21 verdict in 2001 at Texas Stadium. It was Tomlinson's second pro game and he responded with 90 rushing yards in what was a homecoming for the Waco native. Neither current coach was on the field as the Chargers were led by Mike Riley as the Cowboys were under the direction of Dave Campo. NOTES, QUOTES —OLB Steve Foley is practicing despite a nasty looking eye; he had it poked in the exhibition season finale. "He's out there running around with a toothpick in it," coach Marty Schottenheimer said. —The Chargers could have their hands full in the opener. The Cowboys are 16-7 on the road on opening day. —Two undrafted rookies made the Chargers this year: DE Derreck Robinson and LB Marques Harris. —Cowboys assistant head coach Sean Payton was an assistant at San Diego State from 1988-89 and 1992-93. —RB LaDainian Tomlinson is fired-up about the season opener. Especially after getting but one carry - for 55 yards and a score - in the summer. "I always get anxious around this time," he said. "I haven't played much in the preseason and I'm counting down the days." —Bolts RB coach Clarence Shelmon held the same position with the Cowboys from 1998-2001. That means he has worked with Tomlinson, and Tomlinson's idol, Emmitt Smith. —Chargers LB Randall Godfrey, who will retire at the end of the year, played the first four years of his 10-year career with Dallas. —K Jose Cortez once spent a training camp with the Chargers. —The Chargers opened the year against a Texas team last year, when defeating the Houston Texans in Houston, 27-20. —The Chargers have six players who either played high school or college - or both - in Texas: Tomlinson, QB Drew Brees, CB Quentin Jammer, CB Sammy Davis, S Terrence Kiel, S Hanik Milligan and WR Keenan McCardell. BY THE NUMBERS: 13 - consecutive games in which LaDainian Tomlinson has scored a touchdown, if he gets to the end zone Sunday. That would tie an NFL mark held by John Riggins and George Rogers. QUOTE TO NOTE: "It helps him, totally." - QB Drew Brees on how much more effective Pro Bowl RB LaDainian Tomlinson can be in the team's versatile offense. STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL Coach Marty Schottenheimer is tinkering with the notion of letting Bhawoh Jue start over incumbent Jerry Wilson at the free safety spot. Wilson has been reliable, but not been able to make the big plays that result in numerous turnovers. Jue has been ordinary in the exhibition season, but maybe Schottenheimer is thinking that a shakeup will aid a secondary that has been shaky. Jue worked with the first unit on Wednesday. Also, Jamar Fletcher has been working at the nickel back, when teamed with starting cornerbacks Quentin Jammer and Drayton Florence. But at times, Schottenheimer will slide Florence into the nickel, or slot, spot, and put Sammy Davis in Florence's spot - with Fletcher staying on the sidelines. Schottenheimer won't tip his hand on how he'll handle passing downs. What's certain is that whatever combo he lands on, it won't make much of a difference if the front seven can't generate a pass rush, something which was seldom seen last year. PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES —In his first NFL game, rookie RB Darren Sproles will handle the kick and punt return duties, as well as being part of the third-down packages. —WR Reche Caldwell has responded well after sustaining a serious knee injury last October. But he figures to be the third receiver behind Keenan McCardell and Eric Parker. —DE Luis Castillo had a shot at starting before an ankle injury derailed his training camp. Still, he graded well in the exhibition season finale and will see the field on Sunday. —K Nate Kaeding is hoping for a quick start Sunday after a shaky exhibition season. He missed four of his seven field goal attempts, although all the misfires were from at least 44 yards. —With TE Antonio Gates serving the last game of his three-game suspension, backup Justin Peelle will see considerable playing time. Peelle is more of a blocker than a pass-catcher, which will allow the Dallas defense to concentrate more on stopping Tomlinson. GAME PLAN: The Chargers will give the Cowboys a heavy dose of Tomlinson, who has rehabbed his strained groin and is primed and rested for a big opening day. The Chargers will be without TE Antonio Gates to keep the middle of the field open, so it's imperative the Chargers offensive line has its way with a revamped Dallas defense that has switched to a 3-4 alignment after struggling last year. And the Dallas run defense has to prove it can be on the same track with NT Jason Ferguson nursing a sore ankle which kept him from three preseason games, and Al Singleton filling in for Kalen Thornton at the outside linebacker spot; Thornton was put on IR. MATCHUPS TO WATCH Chargers FB Lorenzo Neal, who has blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher in seven consecutive seasons, vs. Cowboys LB Dat Nguyen, a run-stuffer not afraid to find the point of attack. If Ferguson can't slow down Neal in the middle of the line, it could be a long day for Nguyen. Chargers CB Quentin Jammer, who claims off-season eye surgery has brought his game into focus, vs. WR Keyshawn Johnson, the crafty veteran whose mouth moves nearly as quickly as his feet. Jammer can't be caught off-guard and get caught up in Johnson's jabbering. Jammer also has to prove he can cover Johnson without using his hands downfield. Chargers DT Jamal Williams, the leader of a run-stuffing unit that ranked No. 3 against the run last season, vs. Cowboys C Al Johnson. To keep statue-like QB Drew Bledsoe upright, the Cowboys will lean on RB Julius Jones to keep the pressure off Bledsoe. It's imperative the Cowboys are successful on early downs, so the pass rush can't just tee off on the immobile Bledsoe. That means Johnson - with some help from guards Larry Allen and Marco Rivera, must be stout against Williams. Otherwise, they can't give help to Jones in clearing away inside linebackers such as Donnie Edwards and Randall Godfrey. INJURY IMPACT: QB Drew Brees (ankle) returned to practice Wednesday and should be fine for Sunday. LB Shawne Merriman (knee) returned to practice Wednesday for Sunday. He's listed as questionable; it would be a surprise if he played. Shaun Phillips will play more if Merriman sits. WR Vincent Jackson (Achilles) practiced Wednesday and is also questionable for Sunday. Even if fit, he could land on the inactive list for that game. OLB Steve Foley (eye) still has swelling around his eye, which was poked in the preseason finale. He'll play, but if struck in that area again his play could be hampered.