Bolts Face Another 'Must Win' Contest

Can we get down-home folksy here? Are the Chargers all hat and no cattle? The New England Patriots travel to San Diego on Sunday with the Chargers' season clinging to a cliff.

The Chargers, over the past few years, have loved to yap about having the most talented roster in the league. About their top-notch skill players. About a defense which is controlled chaos, forcing turnovers and collecting sacks. About having enough Pro Bowlers to charter a private jet to Hawaii.

The Patriots have often heard this chatter and failed to return fire. Instead, they have concentrated on eliminating the Chargers from the playoffs the past two years.

The two forces meet Sunday night, and the Chargers know they need a win more than convincing others that they really are good.

Coming off Sunday's stunning loss in Miami, the Chargers are working without a net. They sit at 2-3, two games off the pace in the AFC West and a killer stretch staring them in the face.

How critical is Sunday's game? LaDainian Tomlinson has called it a "must-win."

In mid-October for a team some expected to play in early February? Yikes!

That underscores the urgency for the Chargers, who are no longer playing the "it's a long season" card. Or fall back on last year, when they sat at 5-5 before catching fire and winning their last eight in advancing to the AFC championship game -- against the Patriots, who gave them the cold shoulder on a bone-chilling day.

What was supposed to be a Sunday grudge match has become a contest in which the Chargers have to be concerned about their play, not their opponent's.

The coat of confidence in which the Chargers entered the season with is evaporating fast. The cockiness is giving way to an unsettling feeling that the Chargers are getting too close to the third rail, a misstep or two from seeing super dreams be electrocuted.


Coach Norv Turner
Donald Miralle/Getty

Sure it's early and you can't win a championship this weekend. But in some ways, the Chargers could come close to losing one with another home loss, which would send a snowball of momentum rumbling in the wrong direction.

But coach Norv Turner -- who is starting to feel some heat -- expects his squad to rebound.

"I think the strength of our football team is the same thing I would have answered a year ago at this same time: the type of character we have, the resiliency of our guys," he said. "I know they're disappointed ... but I don't see anyone point their finger. I don't see anyone looking the other way. I don't try to see anyone trying to get out of this deal."

The real deal is the Chargers need Sunday's game in the worst way.

SERIES HISTORY: 34th regular-season meeting. Patriots lead series, 18-13-2. Not only have the Patriots ousted the Chargers from their last two playoff appearances, but they have defeated them in 11 of the past 13 regular-season games. The Chargers do have one league title and it came against the then-Boston Patriots in 1963, when the Chargers prevailed for the AFL crown.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The Chargers are 12-1 at home against the AFC since 2006.

--This is the Chargers' last home game until Nov. 9 against the Chiefs.

--The Patriots stayed on the West Coast after beating the 49ers last Sunday.

--Patriots S Rodney Harrison first made his mark with the Chargers. He was a fifth-round pick of then-GM Bobby Beathard and spent the early part of his career trying to convince then-Chargers coach Bobby Ross he was more than a special teams player. The Chargers were convinced he was on his last legs when they released him after the 2002 season.

--Coach Norv Turner said he is warning his players that history doesn't always repeat itself. The 2007 Chargers were 2-3 before going on to the AFC Championship Game. "I'm going to be very careful in assuming that just because we were able to do it last year that it's just going to happen."


FS Eric Weddle
Stephen Dunn/Getty

--SS Eric Weddle had a game-high 10 tackles Sunday, but he couldn't celebrate with the team dropping its third game in five weeks. "We got to know every team is going to give us their best shot," Weddle said. "We have to play our 'A' game to win games and realize that wins in this league aren't as easy as you think. We got to fight for it."

--The Chargers will be trying to break the Patriots' 12-game road winning streak. They broke their 21-game home winning streak with a win at Foxboro in 2005.

--The Chargers have trailed in four of their five games this year. "It's pretty frustrating because we can't put a finger on it," Tomlinson said.

--Ex-San Diego State QB Kevin O'Connell is No. 2 behind New England starter Matt Cassel.

--Patriots WR Wes Welker, who set a franchise record with 112 receptions last year, was waived by the Chargers in 2004.

--OLB Shaun Phillips has three sacks in the three games.

BY THE NUMBERS: 4 -- Chargers postseason wins since 1994; the Patriots have 17 over that span.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't think there is any question about that. I would never question these guys. We work too hard to not be committed to winning." -- RB LaDainian Tomlinson, when asked if every Charger was committed to winning right now.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

What was expected as a one-week absence will go on longer for outside linebacker Jyles Tucker.

Tucker tweaked his hamstring in the win over Oakland two games back and the injury is worse than originally feared.

Tucker signed an extension early in the season when the Chargers realized Shawne Merriman probably wouldn't last the season with his knee injury. But the Chargers' plan of the transition to Tucker -- who does show promise -- took another turn.

With Tucker down, Marques Harris gets another start. He had a 1/2 sack last week and displays a good burst off the line as well. But whenever a team -- any team -- gets down to a third-stringer on the depth chart, it usually raises a red flag.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--RB Darren Sproles figures to get more carries with the uncertainty around LaDainian Tomlinson's toe.

--WR Buster Davis should be in the mix more with Chris Chambers (ankle) expected to be out. Davis has caught passes in only two of the Chargers' five games.

--DT Ryon Bingham is being used more inside -- he also plays end -- with the Chargers trying to keep Pro Bowl DT Jamal Williams (knees) fresh.

--ILB Tim Dobbins continues to steal reps from Matt Wilhelm with his play.

--FB Jacob Hester, a third-round pick, is having trouble getting in on the base offense. But it hasn't hampered his play on special teams, where he is being noticed; he forced and recovered a fumble on a kickoff last week.

GAME PLAN: Get after Matt Cassel. The Chargers have been reluctant to blitz much and the result has been a very tepid pass rush -- we know replacing Shawne Merriman is a tough deal. But the Chargers have to get after Cassel to keep him from casually going through his reads and picking apart a pass defense which is ranked dead last in the NFL.


CB Antonio Cromartie
Stephen Dunn/Getty

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Chargers CBs Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer, vs. Patriots' passing attack and WR Randy Moss.

Cromartie and Jammer will be tested by the Patriots, as they seemed to have rediscovered Moss last Sunday on the deep routes. The Chargers' play from the cornerbacks has been uneven. And when looking for help from the safeties, Eric Weddle is in his first year as a starter, and Clinton Hart is nursing a sore shoulder and a left hand, which was broken earlier this year. Cromartie and Moss is a matchup that features two of the best pure athletes in the NFL. But Cromartie needs to be careful here in that he doesn't go out of his way to showboat his abilities in going for a big play instead of supplying solid coverage against Moss.

Chargers kickoff return team vs. Patriots kick return team, led by Ellis Hobbs.

The Chargers have had trouble containing returns, ranking No. 31 in the league with opponents taking over, on average, on their 30-yard-line. The Chargers defense is on its heels of late and it needs the return team to do a better job in delivering some decent field position. But Hobbs will test that with a 34.2-yard average -- nearly three yards better than any other returner in the NFL.

Chargers running game with RB LaDainian Tomlinson and FB Mike Tolbert, vs. Patriots run defense with S Rodney Harrison.

The Chargers need to get their struggling running game back on track and they will try to do just that if Tomlinson's sore big right toe is willing. If so, Tolbert, an undrafted rookie, needs to have a big day against Harrison, one of the hardest-hitting safeties in NFL history. Harrison is well-versed in how Tomlinson, a former teammate, likes to run. And while Harrison doesn't cover the ground like he once did, he still is dynamite in stopping the run. Plus, with WR Chris Chambers not expected to play, Harrison can cheat toward the line of scrimmage even more in trying to plug a gap Tomlinson wants to hit. The battle between C Nick Hardwick and DT Vince Wolfolk is also worth watching.

INJURY IMPACT

--WR Chris Chambers (ankle) didn't practice and appears to be out for Sunday.

--TE Antonio Gates (hip) worked but he's been having trouble getting separation and yards after the catch in games.

--RB LaDainian Tomlinson (toe) didn't practice. He'll go Sunday, but his toe usually gets fatigued which limits his number of game touches.

--LG Kris Dielman (thigh) will start Sunday.

--RG Mike Goff (knee) will start Sunday.

--OLB Jyles Tucker (hamstring) didn't work and is out Sunday.

--SS Clinton Hart (shoulder) will start Sunday, but his injury could limit his contributions on run support.

--FB Mike Tolbert (ankle) was limited in practice but should go on Sunday.

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