Be Careful What You Wish For

The Chargers return to New England Sunday, surprising everyone but themselves for Sunday's AFC championship game against the Patriots.

"We're standing here right where I remember some of us saying when we left that Patriots locker room in Week 2, 'Hey, it would be awesome if we can be right back here playing in the AFC championship,'" quarterback Philip Rivers said.

"That seemed farfetched then but now we're getting that opportunity and it's going to be as big of a challenge as we could imagine."

Back in September when the Chargers got tattooed here, 38-14, they didn't have the look of a team now one win shy of the Super Bowl.

They got pushed around by the Patriots, leaving for the West Coast scratching their hands about a coaching change and a change of perception.

The Chargers were no longer considered an elite team. But a win Sunday would make them nothing less.

The Patriots are going for perfection and the Chargers would love to spoil that bid.

"You really appreciate the opportunity, to be honest with you, because this could be perhaps the greatest football team to ever play," running back LaDainian Tomlinson said.

"You appreciate getting the opportunity to play them. We know how good they are. We played them obviously in Week 2, but we played them in years past and they've always been good. They've always kind of been that benchmark team that everybody looks to. It's just a great opportunity to get a chance to play against possibly the greatest team to ever play."

Too bad the Chargers won't be in great shape. In eliminating the Colts in the divisional game, Rivers and Tomlinson suffered knee injuries. Both are optimistic about playing Sunday, but one wonders how the injuries will derail their play.

Tight end Antonio Gates is also hobbling after dislocating his toe two weeks ago.

But the Patriots won't care -- and the Chargers know it.

"We have to get our minds focused for a great Patriots team," cornerback Antonio Cromartie said. "They are undefeated and had a great season so we just have to get ourselves prepared and back to where we want to go."

That's to the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history. But to get there, they must dispose of a team looking for its fourth title in seven seasons.

The Chargers could also gain revenge for being eliminated by the visiting Patriots, 24-21, last season. But Tomlinson said the stakes are higher than that.

"It would just mean that we're moving on to the Super Bowl," said Tomlinson, who had some harsh words for the Patriots after last season's home playoff loss. "It would be obviously the biggest game of every guy in that locker room of their career, moving on to the Super Bowl. A lot of dreams would be coming true. I'm pretty sure a lot of us, like me, dreamed about one day doing that. We're going to have the opportunity.

"We can't make it anymore than what it is and think about last year and what happened last year and what happened in Week 2. We've got to focus on what it takes to beat this team and nobody has proved it can even be done yet."

SERIES HISTORY: 36th meeting, if counting playoff games, with the Patriots leading the series 19-14-2. It's the second time they have met this year and the second time they have squared off in the playoffs in the past two seasons. The most historic game between them capped the 1963 season when the Chargers defeated the Boston Patriots, 51-10, for the franchise's only league title.


RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Nick Laham/Getty

NOTES, QUOTES

--FB Lorenzo Neal said the bad-blood angle between these teams isn't all it appears to be. "I think it's overrated," he said. "I think that sometimes it's perception vs. reality. Perception is that we can't stand each other, but reality is that I know Junior (Seau). I go to his golf tournaments every year. I know Rodney (Harrison). I've rented out his condo. I have respect for those guys."

--Those looking forward to seeing the athletic Antonio Cromartie matched up against the record-setting Randy Moss will be somewhat disappointed. Coach Norv Turner said it will take more than one player to slow the Pats' wide receiver.

"I don't know if you want to match anyone up one-on-one with Randy," Turner said. "I've seen him up close and personal. I've seen him too much and I know that he's not only got the great, great speed but he's also crafty, he knows how to run routes and he knows how to beat individual man-to-man coverage. It appears to me that the teams that have played (the Patriots) the best have kept Randy from getting the big plays up the field. If you can do that, you can hopefully keep the score manageable where you have a chance to be in the game in the fourth quarter. To me, the teams that have played him the best have done a good job of keeping him from getting up the field and the teams that have struggled against him, he gets those big plays."

--LaDainian Tomlinson knows the rest of the NFL wanted to see a Colts-Patriots rematch instead of a Chargers-Patriots rematch -- oh well. "It's obvious that this wasn't the matchup that America wanted to see," he said. "This is the matchup ... the two best teams are playing. Everybody had the chance to get to this point, so we're fortunate to be in this situation."

--OLB Shawne Merriman is confident about the Chargers prevailing Sunday, but at the same time, tips his cap to an undefeated rival. "When you're going into a team's home and they haven't lost a game -- and it's not like they haven't seen good teams during the year, they've been tested several times -- and still come out on top," he said.

"What do you say to a team that hasn't lost? We're probably going to get the same odds that we did playing the Colts. We were picked to lose that one too so we have to come in with the same attitude and go in and get a victory."

--Former Chargers GM Bobby Beathard likes his old team's chances come Sunday. "They can win this game," Beathard said. "I like a lot of things about the team. I think when you talk about this matchup and how great the Patriots are -- which they are -- I think the Chargers are the one team in the league that matches up with them better than other teams. Their roster is better than what other teams have to match up against the Patriots."

Beathard built the only Chargers team to reach the Super Bowl to cap the 1994 season.

--Tomlinson will see some familiar faces in the Patriots' Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau, both former teammates of his. Tomlinson said many current Chargers should thank Seau.

"He's got a chance to win his first Super Bowl," he said. "The ironic thing is he's playing against the organization that he created a lot of what we are today. The attitude that we are on this team and the way we play this game is because of Junior. The passion that a lot of us play with is because of Junior. In return, he's going to be looking at himself at the other side of the ball to be honest with you. I really believe that he's happy for us because he taught myself, Jamal (Williams), (Quentin) Jammer, a lot of guys he taught us a lot."

Seau was a 12-time Pro Bowler for the Chargers.

--Among Turner's friends from playing at Oregon is Chargers great Dan Fouts. Turner was asked if he ever beat Fouts out for playing time. "Beat him out of the beer tavern we used to go to," Turner said. "I would leave a little earlier than him. No, Dan and I were on a different level. I was on the wrong end of that level."

--Chargers GM A. J. Smith was a part-time scout for the Patriots from 1978-80.

--The Pats' Harrison was once a fifth-round pick of Beathard's when he was with the Chargers.

BY THE NUMBERS: 201 -- Total yards the Chargers were able to muster in the earlier matchup with the Patriots.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Who wouldn't be? I look for a challenge every single week. It's going to be a great challenge for me, especially in my young career facing a savvy veteran in Randy Moss. So I'm looking forward to it very much." -- NFL interception leader Antonio Cromartie on facing Randy Moss.


CB Quentin Jammer
Nick Laham/Getty

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

If K Nate Kaeding continues to kick as he did in practice on Wednesday, he could assume the kickoff duties on Sunday. That would mean Dave Rayner could be cut, although the team could keep him around as an insurance policy.

Drayton Florence continues to be the nickel back but he was picked on by the Colts' Peyton Manning and will likely wear a target come Sunday for Tom Brady.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--WR Vincent Jackson's stock continues to rise as he shines in the playoffs. After collecting 114 receiving yards and a score in the win over the Titans, he grabbed a team-high seven catches, 93 yards and another touchdown in the win over the Colts.

--RB Michael Turner didn't hurt his venture into free agency with his game in Indianapolis and he could get some additional work with LaDainian Tomlinson ailing. Turner averaged 4.2 yards on 17 carries at Indianapolis.

--K Nate Kaeding has now missed one field goal in each of his four playoff games.

--OLB Shawne Merriman has eight sacks in his last nine games.

--QB Philip Rivers has been stellar during this eight-game run of wins. He's 133 of 214 (.621) for 1,656 yards with 14 TDs and five INTs for a 98.2 rating.

--WR Chris Chambers is familiar with the Patriots after facing them twice a year with the Dolphins. His 48 receptions were the most he had against an AFC East opponent. Those catches produced 493 yards and five TDs.

--P Mike Scifres is coming off a game in which he set the team mark by averaging 59 yards per punt.

GAME PLAN: If there is a weakness on the Patriots, it figures to be on the defensive side of the ball. There's not much to pick on with their offense, not with Tom Brady at quarterback and their stable of wide receivers. So while the Chargers have their share of firepower, getting into a shootout with the Pats doesn't seem like the way to go. Instead, they should try to shorten the game and keep the ball out of Brady's reliable right hand.

To that end, the Chargers figure to lean on the running game, in particular LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner. That plan, though, could be flawed if Tomlinson isn't as effective with his ailing left knee.

But if he's good enough, and Turner can be productive when giving Tomlinson some blows, just maybe the Chargers' running attack can be enough to wear down the Patriots veteran linebackers.

So much will hinge not only on Tomlinson and Turner, but how well the offensive line performs.


LB Shawne Merriman
Lenny Ignelzi/AP

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

Chargers running game vs. Patriots run defense.

It's hard to overstate how important this is to the Chargers' upset chances. It's also why it's imperative the Chargers don't let the Patriots jump to a big lead early in the game like the last time they played. Because if that's the case, the running game option would be severely compromised. Tomlinson has to prove his balky knee is up to the task, and more importantly, the offensive line has to be stout. The Pats, though, gave up only 98 yards rushing in the regular season, but some of that could be attributed to teams being behind so much that they abandoned the run. The offensive line is playing some of its best ball of the season and that will be the key going against the dynamite, but long-in-the-tooth linebacker corps. Keep an eye on how C Nick Hardwick fares against NT Vince Wilfork. If Hardwick can win that battle -- or at least play it even -- that could allow the other linemen to lend a bigger hand in attacking the linebackers instead of giving Hardwick help inside at the line of scrimmage.

Chargers pass rush, with OLB Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips, vs. Patriots passing game, led by the record-setting Tom Brady.

If the Chargers allow Brady an extended time in the pocket without duress, the results are quite predictable -- he will torch them. But the Chargers have the personnel to get up the field and that is going to be critical so Brady can't casually go through his reads and find the open receiver. The Patriots' tackles, Matt Light on the left side and Nick Kaczur on the right, will be tested by Merriman and Phillips on the edges. While the Chargers weren't able to sack Peyton Manning in Sunday's win over the Colts, they did make him hurry a handful of passes at critical junctions in the game. Expecting the Chargers to have a big sack day against Brady, considering how quick he gets rid of the ball, is a tall order. But they must at least harass him and make him uncomfortable at the very least. If not, it will be a long day for the Chargers.

Chargers secondary vs. Patriots stable of top-notch receivers.

If the Chargers are to upset the Pats, they need some big plays from the defense. And if that rush can get Brady to hurry his throw, just maybe one of the Chargers' defensive backs can step in and produce a turnover. The Chargers led the league with 30 INTs; Antonio Cromartie paced the NFL with 10. But Brady, in directing the NFL's top offense and No. 1 passing game, had but eight INTs in the regular season. Trouble with New England is it has so many weapons through the air, it's difficult to cheat toward one player in playing for the pick.

INJURY IMPACT:

--TE Antonio Gates (toe) didn't practice and will likely be a game-time decision again. But the sense seems to be that he will play.

--QB Philip Rivers (knee) didn't work and might not this week. All his attention is being ready for Sunday.

--RB LaDainian Tomlinson (knee) didn't work but will try to on Thursday.

--DT Jamal Williams (ankle) seldom works on Wednesday and this week was no different. He'll go Sunday, but might be compromised.

--FB Lorenzo Neal (leg) worked and has a shot of being active on Sunday.

--OLB Shawne Merriman didn't practice with an illness. He should be fine for Sunday.

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