NFL Preview - San Diego (13-5) at New England (17-0)
The San Diego Chargers stand between the New England Patriots and yet another piece of history, as Norv Turner's squad takes the field at Gillette Stadium for Sunday's AFC Championship.
The Chargers, whose 28-24 road upset of Indianapolis last week put the franchise in the conference title game for the initial time since 1994, will be trying to prevent New England from becoming the first team in NFL history to win its first 18 games of a season.
With last Saturday's 31-20 take-down of pesky Jacksonville, the Patriots matched the 17-0 season-ending mark of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, also advancing to the AFC Championship for the fifth time in the last seven seasons.
New England, which is 5-1 all-time in AFC title games, is trying to become the first team to reach the Super Bowl four times in the same decade since Buffalo made four consecutive trips to the game's ultimate stage from 1990 through 1993.
The Patriots were 38-34 losers at Indianapolis in last year's AFC Championship.
The only teams to capture four Super Bowl titles in the same decade are the San Francisco 49ers (1981, 1984, 1988, 1989) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (1974, 1975, 1978, 1979), and the Patriots would also have a chance to join that exclusive group if it wins its next two contests.
The visiting Chargers can't reach any milestones of such significance on Sunday, but they can earn just their second Super Bowl berth in franchise history.
San Diego's back-to-back postseason wins over the Titans (17-6) and Colts rank as the organization's first playoff victories since the team reached its only Super Bowl following the 1994 season, losing to the 49ers.
Though the Bolts' current win streak pales in comparison to that of the Patriots, San Diego has won eight consecutive games since opening the year at a disappointing 5-5, and has prevailed in four straight road contests.
The Patriots and Chargers have met twice in the postseason, including last year's 24-21 upset of top-seeded San Diego by the Patriots at Qualcomm Stadium. The only other playoff meeting between the clubs occurred in 1963, when San Diego scored a 51-10 blowout of the then-Boston Patriots in the AFL Championship.
New England has a 18-13-2 lead in its all-time regular season series against San Diego, including its 38-14 Sunday night shellacking of the Bolts at Gillette Stadium in Week 2. The Chargers handed the Patriots a lopsided 41-17 defeat in New England in the previous matchup, during Week 4 of the 2005 campaign. That game ranks as the Pats' most lopsided home loss of the Bill Belichick era.
Belichick is 4-4 in his career against San Diego, including a 1-2 record while with the Browns from 1991 through 1995. The Chargers' Turner is 1-2 in his career against New England, including a road win for his Washington team in 1996 and a loss for his Raiders to open the 2005 campaign. Turner is 0-2 head- to-head against Belichick all-time.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
There is major concern for San Diego at the quarterback position heading into Sunday's game, as Philip Rivers (556 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT in '07 playoffs) is regarded as questionable for the team's most important contest in 13 years due to two ailing knees. The former No. 4 overall pick had been dealing with pain in his left knee for much of the regular season's final month, and sustained a sprained right knee while following through on a throw late in last week's win over the Colts. If Rivers can't go, the team will turn to career backup Billy Volek, who was 3-of-4 for 48 yards and rushed for a touchdown to finish off San Diego's win last week. Also, for the second straight week, tight end Antonio Gates (4 receptions) is a question mark due to a dislocated toe suffered against Tennessee. Gates had just two catches for 28 yards in limited action against Indy, and No. 2 tight end Brandon Manumaleuna (3 receptions) saw a wealth of time in his place. Wideouts Vincent Jackson (12 receptions, 2 TD) and Chris Chambers (9 receptions, 1 TD) have both been excellent in these playoffs, ranking 1-2 in the league in receiving yards (207 and 188, respectively) during the 2007 postseason. Chambers was still with the Dolphins when the Chargers and Pats met in Week 2.With the passing game in a battered state, the Chargers will have to rely on a ground attack that is only in slightly better condition than its aerial complement. Two-time defending NFL rushing champion LaDainian Tomlinson (70 rushing yards, 1 TD, 4 receptions) missed the entire second half of the Indianapolis win with a hyperextended left knee, and though he is expected to play on Sunday, it is unclear how much the injury will hamper his productivity. Luckily, San Diego has two excellent reserves in Michael Turner (99 rushing yards) and Darren Sproles, both of whom made an impact against the Colts. Turner carried 17 times for a game-high 71 yards in the win, and Sproles added value by taking a screen pass 56 yards for a key third-quarter touchdown. Tomlinson was held to 43 yards on 18 carries against the Patriots in Week 2, but went for 123 with two touchdowns on 23 totes in last year's AFC Divisional Playoff.
The Patriots experienced some trouble stopping the run during the regular season, ranking near the bottom of the league with 4.4 yards per carry surrendered, but did a good job against a dangerous Jacksonville running game last Saturday. Jaguars running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew combined for just 66 yards on 19 combined carries (3.5 yards per carry), and neither seemed able to get in a rhythm. The three-man front of Vince Wilfork at nose tackle and Richard Seymour and Ty Warren on the ends was productive, with Wilfork and Warren notching five tackles each and Seymour chipping in with four. Veteran inside linebacker and ex-Charger Junior Seau posted a team- high 10 tackles, and leading Patriots regular season tackler Tedy Bruschi had seven.
New England did not have a perfect night against Jacksonville's passing game last week, as the Jags' David Garrard was able to throw for 278 yards with a pair of touchdowns, to wideouts Matt Jones and Ernest Wilford. Still, the Patriots secondary helped the cause with several important plays, including a game-sealing interception from veteran safety and ex-Charger Rodney Harrison in the closing moments. This week, cornerbacks Asante Samuel (4 tackles) and Randall Gay (7 tackles) will have to deal with the duo of Jackson and Chambers, with Harrison and fellow safety James Sanders (8 tackles) lending support over the top. The Pats ranked second in the league in sacks (47) during the regular season, with Pro Bowl outside linebacker Mike Vrabel (12.5 sacks) leading the way, but the team managed just one sack of David Garrard last Saturday. Vrabel's biggest play was a recovery of a Garrard fumble.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
As if we needed more evidence that Tom Brady is having an unprecedented and stunning 2007 season, the Pro Bowler gave us last week's performance against Jacksonville. Brady completed 26-of-28 passes, the most accurate aerial day in league history, regular season or playoffs (minimum 20 attempts), for 262 yards and three touchdowns. Two of the scores went to tight end Benjamin Watson, and the third to ex-Charger Wes Welker, who posted nine catches for 54 yards. Also making an impact was Donte' Stallworth, who continued his solid postseason reputation with three catches for a team-best 68 yards. Randy Moss, who was double-covered for much of the night, finished the Jacksonville game with just one reception for 14 yards. Brady was outstanding against the Chargers in Week 2, completing 25-of-31 passes for 279 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception. Moss (8 receptions, 105 yards, 2 TD) and Welker (8 receptions, 91 yards) proved difficult for the San Diego secondary to defend.New England running back Laurence Maroney came on strong late in the 2007 regular season, and continued that ascendancy in last week's playoff opener. Maroney, who carried 22 times for 122 yards and a touchdown versus the Jags, now has 428 yards with five scores in his last four outings. Third-down back Kevin Faulk was also active in the Jacksonville win, logging nine total touches totaling 45 yards. Maroney had just five yards on five carries against San Diego in last year's AFC Divisional Playoff, but picked up 77 yards on 15 totes versus the Bolts in Week 2.
Though Brady and the New England passing game experienced success against San Diego earlier this year, the secondary the Pats will be opposing is in a much different state than it was in mid-September. The Patriots' Week 2 win took place prior to the emergence of cornerback Antonio Cromartie (7 tackles, 1 INT in playoffs), who is headed to his first career Pro Bowl after setting a team single-season record for interceptions, and rookie safety Eric Weddle (5 tackles, 1 INT), who has been a force since taking significant time away from Clinton Hart (10 tackles) during the second half of the year. Cromartie and Weddle both had interceptions of Peyton Manning last week, and Cromartie added a key forced fumble of Colts wideout Marvin Harrison late in the first half. The Chargers pass rush, led by outside linebackers Shawne Merriman (9 tackles, 1 sack) and Shaun Phillips (14 tackles), did not manage a sack of Manning last Sunday.
San Diego was hot-and-cold against the run during the regular season, but never allowed the Colts rushing attack to get untracked last week. Indy rushers Joseph Addai and Kenton Keith combined for just 50 yards on 17 carries (2.9 yards per rush) on the day, though the duo did amass 90 yards on 11 combined catches through the air. Somewhat troubling for the Chargers run- stopping crew coming into Sunday's contest is the health status of Pro Bowl nose tackle Jamal Williams (3 tackles), who had double knee surgery at mid- season and struggled with an ankle problem in last week's win. Another starter along the three-man front, end Luis Castillo (11 tackles, 1 sack), is suffering from bruised ribs. Those ailments will put additional pressure on inside linebacker Stephen Cooper (24 tackles) to make plays. Cooper, a Massachusetts native, logged 16 tackles against Indianapolis last Sunday.
The Chargers have to be praying that this game doesn't come down to a field goal try, as kicker Nate Kaeding (1-3 FG) has now missed field goals in each of his four postseason appearances to date. Last week, Kaeding hit the right upright on a 48-yard attempt that would have tied the game at 10-10 in the second quarter. The Iowa product, who was 24-of-27 during the regular season, missed a 54-yard kick that would have tied the contests in the waning moments of last year's AFC Divisional Playoff against the Patriots. The Chargers have nothing to worry about in the punting game, as Mike Scifres' excellence has carried over from the regular season (46.1 avg.) to the postseason (48.6 avg.).
Sproles made history against the Colts in Week 10, becoming just the second player in NFL history to return both a punt and kickoff for touchdowns in the same quarter, and his best return in Indy last week was a 30-yard kickoff return.
Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski was one of the heroes of last year's Divisional Playoff upset of the Chargers, drilling all three of his field goal attempts including a 50-yarder in the first quarter and a 31-yard game winner with 1:10 to play. Last week, Gostkowski (21-24 during the regular season) was 1-of-2 on field goals, missing a 35-yarder near halftime but making good on one from the same distance in the fourth quarter that pushed New England's advantage to two scores. Chris Hanson had just one punt (a 30-yarder in the fourth quarter) last week after being the least utilized punter in the league (44 punts, 41.4 avg.) during the regular season.
Welker (10.0 regular season avg.) returned Jacksonville's only punt last week for 14 yards, and New England used backup wideout Chad Jackson (4 returns, 78 yards) and reserve d-back Willie Andrews (1 return, 13 yards) on kickoffs.
You have to respect a team that has won eight consecutive games, especially when that team goes on the road and knocks out the reigning Super Bowl champ in a postseason atmosphere. Unfortunately, San Diego's collective health took a major hit in the Indianapolis win, and it's difficult to envision such a battered club pulling off a second straight monumental road upset when it is at far less than 100 percent. The Patriots knew how to exploit the Chargers' deficiencies in Week 2, and they know how to exploit them now. Look for New England, which boasts superior talent, to jump out to an early lead and hold San Diego at arm's length thereafter. The Chargers might be the second-best team in the NFL at this moment. Unfortunately, they happen to be playing the best.