WR Vincent Jackson (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty)
The Chargers can kill two birds with one stone if they win on Sunday. A victory would avenge last season’s playoff loss to the Patriots and send the Chargers to their first Super Bowl since 1995. However, the Chargers will have to fling that stone from David’s slingshot as they face the NFL’s version of Goliath. Here are some matchups and game scenarios to keep an eye on.
OFFENSIVE MATCHUP TO WATCH: Vincent Jackson vs. Ellis Hobbs
After last season’s playoff loss to the Patriots, Philip Rivers called Hobbs the “sorriest corner in the league.” On Sunday, he’ll have a chance to prove it. Hobbs will be matched up with Jackson, who has elevated his play more than any other Chargers player over the last two weeks. Jackson has caught 12 balls for 207 yards and two touchdowns during the playoffs, making him the postseason leader in yards from scrimmage. He has learned to use his 6’5” frame to his advantage, which is key, as Hobbs is 8 inches shorter than Jackson.
Hobbs, a three-year veteran, set a career-low this year with one interception. He is known for taking chances and jumping underneath routes, something the New England Patriots’ strong pass rush allows him to get away with. Rivers wants to challenge Hobbs deep to keep him honest. When Rivers does throw intermediate passes Hobbs’ way, he needs to make sure they are high enough that either Jackson catches them or no one does.
DEFENSIVE MATCHUP TO WATCH: Eric Weddle vs. Ben Watson
Watson flew under the radar this season, missing four games with an ankle injury and being overshadowed by New England’s superstar receiving corps. However, he turned six of his 36 regular-season receptions into touchdowns and chipped in two scores in the Divisional Round against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Watson excels against 3-4 defenses, as his two best games of the season game against the Chargers (five catches, 49 yards and a TD) and the Cleveland Browns (six catches, 107 yards and two TDs).
Weddle will not be the only defender to cover Watson, but no one else is more equipped for the job. Clinton Hart struggles in man-to-man coverage, as evidenced when Dallas Clark shook him to the ground with a double-move that resulted in a 25-yard touchdown. Marlon McCree lacks the range to hold up against the Patriots’ spread offense and will have to be deployed close to the line of scrimmage. That leaves Weddle, who intercepted his first pass last week since Week 5, to man up against the former first-round pick.
THE CHARGERS WILL WIN IF…Rivers is healthy enough to play at the high level he’s maintained thus far in the playoffs. Rivers has completed 33 of 49 passes (67.3 percent) for 556 yards, four TDs, two INTs and a 115.7 passer rating. More impressively, he’s done it without much help from LaDainian Tomlinson (28 carries for 70 yards) or Antonio Gates (four catches for 43 yards). If Rivers continues to dominate despite his menacing MCLs, the Chargers will move on to Glendale, Ariz.
THE CHARGERS WILL LOSE IF…the defense fails to net at least two turnovers and two sacks. The Chargers led the league in takeaways (48) while the Patriots committed the fewest turnovers (15). San Diego ranked in the top-five in sacks (42) while New England allowed the fifth-fewest (21). The Chargers defense must impose its will and force the Patriots into the negative plays that kill drives and flip field position.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. He has followed the Chargers for more than 14 years and covered the team since 2003.