Chargers-Pats Pregame Roundup

Antonio Gates (Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty)

The rematch more than eight months in the making has finally arrived. The Chargers are out to prove last season's playoff loss was a fluke, while the Patriots want to prove their trio of Super Bowl triumphs deserve to remain asterisk free.

GAME SNAPSHOT

KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:15 ET
GAME DATE: 9/16/07
SURFACE: Grass
TV: NBC, Al Michaels, John Madden, Andrea Kremer
SERIES: 35th meeting. Patriots lead series, 18-14-2. The Patriots and Chargers have turned into one of the NFL's most bitter rivalries over the last couple of years. In 2005, San Diego ended the Patriots' 21-game home-winning streak with a 41-17 victory. Then last year, New England traveled to San Diego and knocked the Chargers out of the playoffs with a fourth-quarter comeback. The Patriots and Chargers first met in 1960, with New England coming out victorious in three of the first five games. Overall, the Patriots have won 11 of the last 13 meetings between the two teams since 1973, but are only 8-8-1 against the Chargers at home.

PREDICTION: Chargers 27-24

KEYS TO THE GAME: If TE Antonio Gates can't play, it would be a serious blow to a Chargers offense that lacks other downfield threats to take pressure of RB LaDainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson has three career 100-yard games against the Patriots, who are missing injured DE Richard Seymour and suspended FS Rodney Harrison on defense. WR Vincent Jackson needs to be a bigger presence, especially in the red zone...The Patriots like to use RB Laurence Maroney to set up the pass, but stuffing the run is the Chargers' specialty. The game likely comes down to San Diego's pass rush. If OLB Shawne Merriman & Co. are getting to QB Tom Brady, advantage Chargers. But if Brady has time to look downfield, he has far more big-play weapons than San Diego's shaky secondary can possibly hope to contain.

KEY INJURIES:

Chargers: Gates (back) is iffy and would be replaced by Brandon Manumaleuna; OLB Shawne Merriman (Achilles) is expected to play.

Patriots: Seymour (knee) will again be replaced by Jarvis Green.

FAST FACTS: Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson has completed eight of 11 career passes, with seven touchdowns and a 154.4 passer rating...Patriots OLB Junior Seau played 13 seasons with the Chargers, making the Pro Bowl 12 times.

PERSONNEL NEWS:

Chargers:

--TE Antonio Gates was able to work Thursday after skipping Wednesday's practice with a sore back. Gates said the overall pounding he took in Sunday's win over Chicago was the culprit. Gates was the leading receiver for the Chargers with nine receptions for 107 yards and a touchdown. With the Chargers' lack of proven receivers on the outside, Gates' role can't be understated. But he's a go for Sunday.

--PR Darren Sproles continues to work and should be able to handle his workload Sunday. Sproles had a stellar preseason to make the squad after missing the 2006 season with a broken ankle. But he suffered a concussion on Sunday's opening kickoff of the regular season and didn't return.

--SS Clinton Hart continues to work after straining a quad on Sunday. Hart needs to be on his game as the Patriots' wide receivers figure to test the Chargers' secondary, especially deep with Randy Moss.

--RB Michael Turner is making progress and practicing. He was nursing a sore ankle going into the opener. Turner not only gives LaDainian Tomlinson productive breathers but can also contribute in the kick-return game.

--OLB Shawne Merriman is eager to record his first sack after getting shut out in the opener. Merriman, who led the NFL with 17 sacks last year, watched the linebacker opposite him, Shaun Phillips, sack Rex Grossman with a big hit. He worked and is a go for Sunday.

--RB LaDainian Tomlinson could take advantage of the Patriots missing two defenders: free safety Rodney Harrison and defensive end Richard Seymour. Tomlinson looks to rebound from a 25-yard rushing game in the opener, the second-lowest output of his career. Tomlinson has three, 100-yard rushing games against the Patriots, including a 217-yarder.

--WR Craig Davis should start again and the Chargers are looking for the rookie can stretch the Patriots' defense. Davis had two catches for 15 yards in his debut.

--K Nate Kaeding is hoping if NBC uses a cable above the field for its portable camera, it is raised higher than the one used Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium. Kaeding said his kickoff to start the second half glanced the wire and hurt his distance.

--Backup FB Andrew Pinnock (hamstring) practiced Thursday.

--WR Eric Parker is likely out at least two-three more games as he recovers from toe surgery.

Patriots:

--TE Kyle Brady (team decision) had limited participation in practice on Thursday.

--QB Tom Brady (right shoulder) had limited participation in practice on Thursday.

--DL Jarvis Green (shoulder) had limited participation in practice on Thursday. Green had two sacks last week against the Jets filling in for Richard Seymour.

--WR Randy Moss (team decision) had limited participation in practice on Thursday. This is the second straight week that Moss has missed a portion practice on Thursday.

--G Stephen Neal (shoulder) had limited participation in practice on Thursday.

--DL Mike Wright (foot) had limited participation in practice on Thursday. Wright was inactive for last week's game against the Jets.

INSIDE THE CAMPS:

Chargers:

The talent-laden Chargers entered the year with just a handful questions. Among the few mysteries for a team which went 14-2 last season was the play at inside linebacker.

Savvy veteran linebackers Donnie Edwards and Randall Godfrey had exited. Matt Wilhelm and Stephen Cooper were asked to replace them.

While Wilhelm and Cooper were five-year pros, they had never been full-time starters. Sunday's game was the first time they ever started as a tandem. Sunday in New England will be No. 2.

But by all accounts, the two "rookie" starters played just fine. The Bears managed but 80 yards rushing, with the middle manned by Wilhelm and Cooper challenged repeatedly.

The two had the luxury of playing behind Pro Bowl nose tackle Jamal Williams. Still, Wilhelm and Cooper played to rave reviews.

"Those guys stepped up and played great, and we knew they would," defensive end Luis Castillo said.

Cooper had a team-high eight tackles; Wilhelm, five. They also combined for two fumble recoveries -- one on special teams -- and a forced fumble.

"Those guys aren't rookies," Castillo added. "They're proven veterans who have played five years. It's great when you have two new guys in the middle and they possess the maturity to handle it."

Wilhelm and Cooper will be asked to slow the Patriots' running attack, led by Laurence Maroney, on Sunday night. If the Patriots can establish something on the ground, it'll make Tom Brady even more effective with his trio of big-play wide receivers.

But if Wilhelm and Cooper do their thing, the Chargers' pass rush has a better chance to pester Brady in obvious passing situations.

What's obvious is when Wilhelm and Cooper were the understudies for Edwards and Godfrey, they were paying attention.

"They learned from some good guys, some veteran guys and they got a taste of it last year," Williams said. "Yeah, (the Bears) were testing them but they did a good job out there."

The Chargers look for a similar performance Sunday in what promises to be a hostile Gillette Stadium. If the Patriots want to show off their new revved passing game, it has to first be set it up with the run.

That's why the play of two of the Chargers' newest starters is critical to keep New England one-dimension in its offensive approach.

Patriots:

Commissioner Roger Goodell fined Bill Belichick $500,000 after determining the Patriots' coach violated league policy after a team employee had his video camera seized before the end of the first quarter last Sunday for taping the New York Jets' sideline.

The fine is the most allowed under the NFL Constitution and By-Laws, but Goodell decided not to suspend the coach after also levying a $250,000 fine against the team and ruling that the Patriots will forfeit a first-round draft pick next year if they reach the playoffs or second- and third-round picks if they do not reach the postseason.

"This episode represents a calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid longstanding rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition on the playing field," Goodell wrote in a letter to the Patriots.

While saying he did not believe the incident affected the outcome of last Sunday's game, Goodell said the heavy punishment for Belichick was because, "Coach Belichick not only serves as the head coach but also has substantial control over all aspects of New England's football operations. His actions and decisions are properly attributed to the club."

--At 5-feet-10, 190 pounds, special teams ace Willie Andrews is a bit undersized, but you wouldn't know that by watching him cover kicks as a gunner. Andrews uses his speed to get down the field and has no qualms about throwing his body around in what Bill Belichick likes to call "controlled chaos."

As a rookie, Andrews tied for the team lead in special teams tackles with 15. The player he tied with? Special teams standout Larry Izzo.

It's no coincidence that Andrews is developing into one of New England's best special teamers while following Izzo's lead.

"Larry saw that I was the guy who was going to be on all the special teams plays with him," Andrews said. "He knew I was an athlete and a good playmaker so we kind of stick together. He tells me little things and different maneuvers to help me improve my game. Larry is the man when it comes to special teams. There's no one better than him to learn from and talk to if you want to keep getting better."

Andrews was a star kick returner at Baylor. He set school records for total kick returns (164), kick return yards (2,596), kickoff returns (67), kickoff return yards (1,647) and punt return yards (949). Andrews didn't play on the kick coverage units in college but he believes his experience as a returner helped him prepare for that role at the pro level.

"Being a kick returner during my three years at Baylor really helped me out making the transition," Andrews said. "Being a great returner and now as an upback I know what the returner is seeing, what he's looking for. That helps me block for our return guys here, so everything I did in college really helped me out."

Andrews has earned a roster spot for the second straight year mainly due to his contributions on special teams. But Andrews is far from a one-trick pony. He also adds depth in the Patriots secondary as a reserve safety. Andrews started every game of his final three seasons in college at safety but his lack of size may prevent him from being a full-time starter in the NFL.

Andrews looks to Izzo as an example of someone who has been able to last in the league over a long period of time, despite never being a defensive starter. But if the Patriots need Andrews to take on a bigger role in the future, he's up to the challenge.

"I'm looking to contribute anywhere I'm needed," Andrews said. "I look at a guy like Larry and I see there is a place for someone who excels at special teams and I know there's a role on this team for guys like that. It encourages me that if I keep playing on special teams and keep doing my part that if an opportunity comes to take on a bigger role, I'll be ready to step in."

After one season, Andrews has laid the groundwork to become one of the better special teams players in the league. And while he's hoping to reach the level of his mentor some day, Belichick is quick to point out that the young safety has a ways to go before he can be put in the same class with Izzo -- a three time Pro Bowler.

"I think that Willie has some things going for him. But I think that's a big comparison to make," Belichick said about the contrast between Andrews with Izzo.

"You're talking about a guy who has been special teams captain, multiple Pro Bowls, one of the best special teams player in the league to a guy that has played one year. That's a big jump. But I think that Willie has a lot of special teams attributes. He made our team and was a primary contributor in the kicking game last year and was productive. But you're raising the bar pretty high there with Izzo."

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