KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:15 ET
GAME DATE: 10/12/08
TV: NBC (Al Michaels, John Madden, Andrea Kremer)
SERIES: 37th meeting. The Patriots lead the series, 18-13-2. The Patriots have also won the last three meetings, including the postseason. They rallied for a 24-21 victory in the AFC divisional playoffs two years ago at Qualcomm Stadium and then beat the Chargers again in the conference title game last season. San Diego, however, has won two of the last three regular-season meetings between the teams, including a 21-14 win in 2002.
PREDICTION: Chargers 23-17
KEYS TO THE GAME
--Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson has averaged under 3.0 yards per carry in three of the past four games, which is at the root of why the Chargers' normally explosive offense has been less than stellar. With QB Philip Rivers likely minus WR Chris Chambers and with TE Antonio Gates struggling to gain consistent separation following offseason toe surgery, the Chargers need Tomlinson to exploit a Patriots defense allowing 4.9 yards per carry.
--The Patriots stayed on the West Coast after last Sunday's win in San Francisco and trained at San Jose State. QB Matt Cassel proved last week he can throw the deep ball to WR Randy Moss, and there should be more opportunity to look downfield with the Chargers' pass rush struggling minus Shawne Merriman. With RB Laurence Maroney not providing much, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan (if healthy) will all see action in the backfield.
Chargers: Chambers (ankle) appears unlikely; Tomlinson (toe) will play, but remains limited; OLB Jyles Tucker (hamstring) is out.
Patriots: Jordan (calf) is uncertain.
FAST FACTS: Randy Moss has 57 career 100-yard receiving games, third most in NFL history. ... The Chargers are 12-1 at home against the AFC since 2006.
--CB Antonio Cromartie is again being slowed by a hip ailment that restricted him earlier in the year. He'll likely play Sunday, but he could be compromised in trying to track Randy Moss.
--FB Mike Tolbert can't shake the sprained ankle that has been bothering him. He, like CB Antonio Cromartie, was a limited participant in Thursday's practice.
--RB LaDainian Tomlinson (toe) also was restricted in his work. That said, he was moving pretty well.
--OLB Jyles Tucker (hamstring) is out at least this week and possibly longer.
--OLB Marques Harris, who was a third-stringer at the beginning of the season, will start in place of OLB Jyles Tucker.
--RG Mike Goff (knee) is a go for Sunday.
--LG Kris Dielman (thigh) will start Sunday.
--TE David Thomas was a surprise addition to the absentee list at Thursday's practice at San Jose State University. Thomas' situation does not appear to be serious and he should be on the field Sunday in San Diego. The Patriots will need him considering he's a big part of the run-blocking unit at the line of scrimmage.
--LB Eric Alexander missed another day of practice Thursday with a hamstring injury and remains in doubt for Sunday's game. Alexander hasn't played since Week 1 and has yet to make any noticeable progress, so it's unlikely he'll play this weekend.
--WR Kelley Washington also missed practice Thursday and may not be on the field again Sunday in San Diego due to an ankle injury. The special teams ace has not played since Week 2 against the Jets, limiting the team's depth at wide receiver.
--RB LaMont Jordan also missed Thursday's practice with a right calf injury and will likely be inactive against the Chargers. Jordan hurt himself early against the 49ers and sat out the rest of the game before leaving the field in street clothes.
--RB Laurence Maroney appears healthy and ready to go Sunday and may have a shot at reestablishing himself as the team's No. 1 option in the running game. Maroney has struggled in recent weeks, but should get more carries against San Diego with LaMont Jordan nursing a calf injury.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Chargers head into Sunday night's game with the Patriots looking to get their high-octane offense back on track.
Thursday's practice featured their two top wide receivers watching and not practicing.
Chris Chambers, who paces the team with five touchdown catches, sprained his ankle in Sunday's loss in Miami and hasn't worked since.
"I'm always optimistic; I consider myself a fast healer," Chambers said. "We have a great training staff and I'm going to get back as fast as I can. I'm not going to rush anything now and hopefully I'll be on the field very soon."
Vincent Jackson, who has a team-high 17 catches, was also out. He tweaked his knee in Wednesday's practice and stayed off it Thursday.
"There's a difference between playing with soreness and soreness you can't play through," Jackson said. "The knee is just pretty sore ... get some rest and see if we can get the inflammation out of there and hopefully by tomorrow I can practice."
The Chargers have the No. 9 ranked passing offense, although it sputtered in Miami when Philip Rivers threw for but 159 yards and a score -- to Chambers.
With those two receivers ailing, it puts added pressure on a running game that has been struggling. The Chargers, despite the presence of All-Pro LaDainian Tomlinson, rushed for just 60 yards against the Dolphins.
With the Patriots potentially not having to worry as much about getting hurt on the outside, they can load up near the line of scrimmage to stop the run.
Matt Cassel admits he's still learning something new each week in his role as the New England Patriots' starting quarterback. Perhaps his biggest -- and most important -- lesson has been getting Randy Moss the ball.
The two finally hooked up on a big play last weekend in the Patriots' 30-21 victory over the 49ers when Cassel hit Moss over the top for a 66-yard touchdown pass. The vertical passing game has been lacking since Tom Brady went down, but Cassel expects things to get better on a weekly basis.
"I think you continue to learn something each and every week, especially as a young quarterback when you're thrown into the fire like I was early on in the season," Cassel said. "You go and you try and get better each and every week.
"I rely a lot on the coaching staff to put me in a good position and I try to go out there and execute the game plan to the best of my abilities. Hopefully, I will continue to progress and continue to get a feel for what they're looking for on particular plays and if I can get the ball to Randy that's great. I'd love to do that each and every week. We weren't really able to do that Week 2 and 3 but definitely last week we were."
Cassel, as he's said in the past, continues to hammer home the point that he won't be reckless with the ball in an attempt to get Moss involved. He'll take what the defense gives him, even if that's only short-yardage passes and quick screens.
"You have to try to get the ball to your playmakers and obviously Randy is one of the best playmakers in the NFL, so we're going to continue to try and do that whichever way we can," he said.
"I told people this before, but I rely heavily on the coaches from a play-calling standpoint and I just try to go out there and execute it. I can try to force the ball downfield and do these things but for me, I'm just going to go through my progressions and if we talk about trying to get him the ball then that's what I'll do."
These days, Cassel walks around with a bit of a swagger -- perhaps an edge from knowing he's now 2-1 as a starter after having to take over for the reigning league MVP in Week 1. At the same time, he's quick to thank his teammates, especially his running backs, who've helped the Patriots set the tone offensively.
"Any time you can get the running game going it opens up other aspects of the offense," Cassel said. "Those running backs ran hard (against San Francisco) -- Sammy (Morris), Kevin (Faulk), Laurence (Maroney) and LaMont (Jordan). They're all running the ball really hard and hopefully that continues."
With success comes fame, and Cassel has certainly received his fair share of attention in the past few weeks, but his focus remains on leading the Patriots back to the playoffs.
"You just don't pay any attention to it," he said. "You go out and you have to play your game. All the rest of that stuff just goes along with it. Once you get out there and you take that first snap all that stuff goes out the window. You can talk about it and stuff, but the fact is when it comes down to it, it's playing football."