TE Antonio Gates (Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty)
LaDainian Tomlinson returned to the practice field with a bull's-eye on his back. The Patriots believe that containing LT is the key to stopping the high-powered Chargers offense. San Diego has other plans, although those could take a hit if Antonio Gates or Philip Rivers is out with an injury.
KICKOFF: Sunday, 3:00 ET
TV: CBS, Greg Gumbel, Phil Simms
SERIES: 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.
PREDICTION: Patriots 34-24
KEYS TO THE GAME: Regardless of the health of QB Philip Rivers, RB LaDainian Tomlinson and TE Antonio Gates -- although they certainly are major storylines -- the Chargers' game plan shouldn't change. Yes, WRs Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers have become a very effective tandem in the playoffs. But to help protect the defense, the Chargers must use the ground game to control the clock, wear down the Patriots' front seven and set up the vertical passing game.
The softness of the Chargers' defense is defending the pass, with the secondary only a strength when the pass rush forces opposing quarterbacks into mistakes. San Diego only got to Patriots QB Tom Brady twice in the first meeting, both times by OLB Shawne Merriman. If OTs Matt Light and Nick Kaczur hold up, Brady should be able to move the ball at will through the air and not have to test the Chargers' strong run defense.
Chargers: Rivers (sprained right knee) and Gates (dislocated toe) could be game-time decisions; Tomlinson (sprained left knee) and DT Jamal Williams (ankle) might be limited, but are expected to play.
Patriots: RG Stephen Neal (shoulder) and WR Donte' Stallworth (knee) have been limited in practice but are expected to play.
FAST FACTS: New England has joined the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only teams to reach 17-0 in a season. ... Jackson has 207 receiving yards in two playoff games this year.
CHARGERS PERSONNEL NEWS:
--TE Antonio Gates (toe) sat out another practice and he might not test his injury until a couple hours before kickoff on Sunday.
--FB Lorenzo Neal (leg) continued to work and it looks like he will be active on Sunday.
--OLB Shawne Merriman (ill) was able to get in some limited work after taking Wednesday off.
--NT Jamal Williams (ankle) didn't practice but is convinced he will be fine for Sunday and could work on Friday.
--K Nate Kaeding continues to kick more and could handle the kickoffs on Sunday. If so, Dave Rayner could be cut.
PATRIOTS PERSONNEL NEWS:
--LT Matt Light (flu) and S Mel Mitchell (biceps) were the two players not present for the media access portion of Thursday's practice.
--QB Matt Gutierrez and OL Dan Connolly wore black jerseys, indicating they were practice players of the week.
--G Stephen Neal (shoulder) had limited participation in Thursday's practice. Neal has been battling a shoulder injury all season but is expected to start this week against San Diego.
--WR Donte' Stallworth (knee) had limited participation in Thursday's practice. Stallworth played last week against Jacksonville, catching a big pass in the fourth quarter. The injury isn't thought to be serious.
--QB Tom Brady (right shoulder) had limited participation in Thursday's practice. Brady will be in the starting lineup on Sunday when the Patriots host the Chargers.
INSIDE CHARGERS CAMP:
The Chargers got some good news on Thursday with All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson returning to practice.
Tomlinson worked for the first time since hyper extending his knee in Sunday's win over the Colts. He was upbeat afterward and appears on track to play Sunday against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
"I feel pretty good," said Tomlinson, who walked without a limp. "I feel fine."
Tomlinson was curious just where his left leg was after getting it twisted against the Colts.
"I tested it," the two-time rushing champion said. "I wanted to see where I was today. (And) I was happy where I was today."
Coach Norv Turner was smiling with his star player back on the field.
"I think we are making progress; L.T. was able to practice," said Turner, who is looking for his first conference championship as a head coach. "He looked good."
Quarterback Philip Rivers, though, wasn't able to practice. He is still being bothered by a strained MCL in his right knee.
Rivers tried to talk his way onto the practice field, but was stiff-armed.
"He was wanting to go out and throw some and take some drops today," Turner said. "But (trainer) James Collins didn't think it was appropriate, so we will see where he is tomorrow."
INSIDE PATRIOTS CAMP:
The only team hotter than the Chargers right now is the Patriots. San Diego has won eight games in a row and comes to Gillette Stadium believing it can do what no other team has done this season: beat the Patriots.
"I see a confident football team. I see a physical football team," Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel said.
"I think their grit. I think that's a way they've learned how to be," added linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "They just keep fighting and fighting. That is proven with the win streak they have over the last half of the season since Thanksgiving."
One of the reasons for the Chargers' revival is All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson wasn't being used a lot early in the year but turned it on during the second half of the season, once San Diego returned to the power running game.
"Every team has a guy that kind of you build around and he's been that guy here," said Chargers head coach Norv Turner. "He's persistent in his attitude and his leadership and we all got off to a slow start. It was tough on LT early and we weren't playing as well as we had, but once we got going, he's had the same kind of year he's had over the last seven.
"Obviously when you lead the league in rushing after getting off to a slow start, he's a complete player for us offensively. He makes plays in the passing game, he's an excellent blocker and obviously is a great runner."
The key for the Patriots defense this week is stopping the former NFL MVP, or at the very least, slowing him down.
"You sort of have to be everywhere in the run game," Bruschi explained. "They'll keep it front side and also cut it backside. He's a runner that will find the hole. Just when you think he's running the ball, there's a play fake and he can get it on a screen pass. You have to expect him in running game and the passing game. He's a very dangerous player. He was the MVP last year and that was well deserved. He's a guy you have to focus on every down."
Tomlinson couldn't finish last weekend's game against the Colts after suffering a bruised knee. But the Patriots players don't seem to think that will be much of an issue for Tomlinson this weekend.
"LT is definitely a great back, so his injury, as far as that goes, I don't know how that goes, but I'm sure he'll play," Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "Other than that, I think that he's going to come and play just like he does every Sunday, not just because it's the (AFC) Championship Game."
For the Chargers to pull the upset on Sunday, they'll need a big game from Tomlinson. That's something New England's defense will do its best to prevent from happening.