Bolts Brace for the Biggest Challenge

The Chargers get what they longed for: a rematch with the New England Patriots. After getting blasted by the Patriots in September, the Chargers head for New England again for Sunday's AFC Championship Game.

"I like our chances," center Nick Hardwick said. "I don't think anybody is going to think we are going to win but, we are going to do our best."

That effort might come without two of the team's best players.

All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson suffered a bruised left knee in Sunday's win over the Colts. And quarterback Philip Rivers suffered a right knee injury.

Both players were spectators in the late stages of the upset of the defending world champion Colts. But Tomlinson and Rivers were somewhat optimistic they would be able to go on Sunday.

What's certain is the Chargers are the NFL's hottest team -- this side of New England -- with eight straight wins.

"We said all along we wanted to get hot at the right time and we have done that and now we all know what is next, arguably one of the best teams to ever play," Rivers said of the 17-0 Patriots.

"We got our hands full, but we're excited to be there. We know we are one game away from playing in THE game and we are excited to be where we are."

The Chargers were just getting settled when visiting New England in September. The transition of a new head coach and two coordinators was still being felt.

"Since Week 2 we wanted to go back up there against New England," left tackle Marcus McNeill said. "We are a much different team now. Even though they are rolling, we're going to try and go into this game like we take every game. We are going to be the underdogs and nobody wants us to win. But that's fine; we'll take the role again."

What flipped from a team being 1-3 to one win shy of its second Super Bowl ever?

"We're just playing more confident," McNeill said. "Everybody is used to the coaching staff. Early on, things were a little bit different. But we are used to each other and we've really bonded tighter."

Linebacker Shawne Merriman knows the task at hand.

"We are going to come in there fired up, but they are undefeated this year and they have been tested several times," he said. "We have to go prove it. We have to go in there and show we can beat these guys."

To do that, Merriman said the Chargers can't fall in a early hole.

"They like to get up on you early and they got the guys to do it," he said. "So you have to go out there and fight them, hand-to-hand the entire game because you are playing against the best.

"It's a tough environment to play New England. And I just imagine going in there it will be twice as loud (as Indianapolis) with just that much more on the line."

The Chargers were whipped by the Patriots in Week 2 to the tune of 38-14 after falling behind 27-0.

"Whipped? I like that word get whipped - but that's tough," Merriman said. "Whenever you see the top teams in the playoffs right now (New England, Green Bay), is a tough start. Especially early in the season when you have a bunch of things that have changed -- coaches and everybody trying to get on the same page. It's tough playing two teams like that.

"So I think it will be a little different the second time around; we know what to expect."

PLAYER NOTES

--FB Lorenzo Neal could be active this week as he continues to make progress from his broken leg suffered in December. This will be his second consecutive week of practice.

--RB Michael Turner improved his stock with a solid game as he gets set to enter free agency. He averaged 4.2 yards on 17 carries.

--DE Luis Castillo suffered a rib injury but was able to return to the game.

--WR Vincent Jackson continues to shine late in the season. He had team-highs in receptions (seven) and yards (93) and added a scoring catch in the win over the Colts.

--ILB Stephen Cooper had a game-high 16 tackles against the Colts.

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