Game breakdowns: AFC/NFC Championships

Taking a look deep inside Sunday's AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers and NFC Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants, with snapshot game details, series history, keys to the game, key injuries, personnel updates and a look inside both camps before the big games.

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San Diego Chargers (13-5) at New England Patriots (17-0)
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KICKOFF: Sunday, 3 p.m. Eastern
SITE: Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
SURFACE: FieldTurf
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.

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.

KEY INJURIES: 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.

PERSONNEL NEWS
Chargers

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
--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 THE CAMPS

Chargers

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."

Patriots
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.


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New York Giants (12-5) at Green Bay Packers (14-3)
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KICKOFF: Sunday, 5:30 Central
SITE: Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisc.
SURFACE: Grass
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver, Chris Myers

SERIES: 54th meeting. Packers lead series, 29-22-2. The teams are meeting for the sixth time in the postseason, with Green Bay holding a 4-1 edge. All of those matchups occurred in what was then the NFL Championship, ranging from 1938 to '62. The Packers' victories in 1939, '44, '61 and '62 account for a third of their unprecedented 12 league titles. Green Bay pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 35-13 win at Giants Stadium in a Week 2 matchup this season. The visiting team has won the last four meetings, dating to 1998, with the Giants winning the last encounter in Green Bay, 14-7 in 2004.

KEYS TO THE GAME: QB Eli Manning has rightfully been praised for the poise he has shown since the Giants gave New England all it could handle in Week 17. But it's not the passing game that has gotten Big Blue one game from the Super Bowl. RBs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw have been the driving force behind the offense, and the ground game must produce with temperatures predicted near zero with possible snow flurries. ... The Packers would love nothing more than another game involving snowball fights. RB Ryan Grant ripped off 201 rushing yards last weekend, and his emergence has made it that much easier for Favre to play pitch and catch with his dangerous receiving crew. The Giants have a bigger problem than just their beat-up secondary. With Favre's ability to unload the ball quickly on screens and slants, the Giants' all-important pass rush might not be much of a factor.

KEY INJURIES: Giants: CB Aaron Ross (dislocated shoulder) is expected to start, possibly wearing a harness; CB Sam Madison (abdomen) appears as though he'll be active; CB Kevin Dockery (hip flexor) is unlikely to play. Packers: CB Will Blackmon (foot) could return, but would be unlikely to resume punt return duties over Tramon Williams.

FAST FACTS: Favre (5,075) and Joe Montana (5,772) are the only players with more than 5,000 passing yards in the postseason. ... The Giants are in the NFC Championship Game for the first time since the 2000 season.

PERSONNEL NEWS
Giants

-- The only player on the Giants' roster with a Super Bowl ring is guard/center Grey Ruegamer, who played for the New England Patriots when they won Super Bowl XXXVI. The only two Giants with previous Super Bowl experience, both in XXXV when they lost to Baltimore, are DE Michael Strahan and WR Amani Toomer.
-- RB Brandon Jacobs, the Giants' leading rusher this season with 1,009 yards, asked to compare himself with the second running back in the game, rookie Ahmad Bradshaw. "Well, he's short and squatty so it's harder to see him in there, and when defenses have taken the pounding I give 'em (Jacobs is 6-feet-4 and 265 pounds) it's difficult for them to run behind a guy with fresh legs who is as quick and as fast as he is."
-- Jacobs and Green Bay rookie CB Tramon Williams played on the same high school team in Napoleonville, LA. "I'm really happy for him," Jacobs said. "He never even got a college scholarship when we graduated and it has always been a case of him scratching and hoping for a chance." Jacobs attended Auburn and then Southern Illinois; Williams went to Louisiana Tech as a walk-on.
-- CB Kevin Dockery (hip flexor) appears to be out for the third consecutive week. "He didn't practice," said head coach Tom Coughlin, "and I'm not sure that he will."
-- ORT Kareem McKenzie (ankle) went through the full practice and is considered likely to play Sunday.
-- CB Aaron Ross was limited in practice "but he did more than other guys who are limited," Coughlin added.
-- On the trade of Packers RB Ryan Grant to the Packers on Sept. 1, Coughlin added this: "We had five or six running backs, a number of people, who we felt could play in the NFL, and that was just too many to keep."
-- CB Sam Madison (abdominal muscle strain) was termed "limited" at practice and Coughlin said: "He has to show me he can maneuver within his position without worry or injury and be able to defend himself and his job without any interference of limitations."

Packers
--C Scott Wells didn't take part in contact drills for the second straight day as he continues to receive treatment for soreness stemming from a strained glute. Head coach Mike McCarthy said after practice Thursday that Wells would be fine to play in the NFC Championship on Sunday.
--RG Jason Spitz has handled the first-team reps at center with Wells sidelined in practice. Spitz would slide over from his starting spot if Wells needs to come out at some point in the game. Tony Moll is the backup at right guard.
--MLB Nick Barnett was limited in team work Thursday, a day after he was held out of contact drills to rest a sore hamstring. He's expected to be fine to make the start Sunday.
--WR Greg Jennings was the only player on the team's injury report who had full participation Thursday. He has been managing with a sore groin in recent weeks but will be ready for the game.
--CB Will Blackmon continues to make progress with a right foot injury that kept him out of the last game. Blackmon went through drills on a limited basis for the second straight day. A decision on whether to activate him Sunday will be made after the coaches and medical staff see how Blackmon fares in practice Friday.

INSIDE THE CAMPS

Giants

The Giants have gotten this far without three of their key players, strong-side linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka, tight end Jeremy Shockey and running back Derrick Ward. All of them, ironically, were felled by fractured fibula injuries, and all involving the left leg.

But now the question must be raised: Have these losses seriously impacted the team's ability to play well and win?

The obvious answer is no. With Reggie Torbor replacing Kiwanuka, rookie Kevin Boss replacing Shockey and Brandon Jacobs regaining his health in time to replace Ward, there has been almost no stumbling from the gate.

The answer to why this has been so smooth must relate to the team's depth, and that includes the work done by retired general manager Ernie Accorsi, new general manager Jerry Reese and head coach Tom Coughlin.

Kiwanuka was the first-round pick in Accorsi's last draft, 2006. He was a defensive end from Boston College and after showing promise at that position as a rookie, Coughlin and Reese moved him to strong-side linebacker, with the urging and blessing of newly hired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

Boss was a fifth-round pick this past year, one of Reese's eight choices -- all of whom made the team and all of whom saw action in the first playoff game in Tampa Bay, incidentally. Boss attended tiny Western Oregon College; talk about intense scouting.

Torbor was another Accorsi pick, a fourth-rounder from Auburn in 2004, and after getting a few chances to start and failing to hold the job, he became a reliable backup and special teams performer. But now, with Kiwanuka out, it would appear a newly discovered sense of urgency has moved him up a notch.

Depth gets little or no credit until it's needed, and if it isn't there at the time the team gets to no criticism. Smooth transitions like this one don't just happen, it just seems that way.

Packers
A heavy snowfall and plummeting temperatures Thursday was an appetizer.

A wind-chill advisory is in effect this weekend for Northeast Wisconsin. Temperature in the late afternoon Sunday for the kickoff of the NFC Championship at Green Bay's Lambeau Field isn't expected to be higher than 2, with a wind chill well into the negative numbers.

For Packers punter Jon Ryan, it will be reminiscent of a high-school football game he played in his native Canada. He remembered the temperature being minus-20 as he played running back and handled the punting and kicking chores for his team.

"I did wear gloves that day," Ryan said.

The second-year player, however, is planning to not wear gloves on his hands in the bitterly cold matchup against the New York Giants. Never mind that Ryan -- and the rest of the Packers -- suffered through a forgettable game in blustery conditions at Chicago four weeks ago.

Extremely strong winds wreaked havoc with the Packers' punting, turning hard snaps from Rob Davis into curveballs for Ryan. He was unable to get one punt off and had two kicks blocked, which fueled the Bears' 35-7 upset victory over their NFC North rival.

Despite being accustomed to the wintry elements on a daily basis during the season, the Green Bay players were done in by Mother Nature.

"I thought the problem we had in Chicago was clearly focus, and our fundamentals were very poor. And, you could apply some of that to the focus," head coach Mike McCarthy said this week. "I thought wind factored very much in that game, and hopefully, it won't factor this week."

The Packers have tried to not think of how bitterly cold it will be as Sunday's game starts and continues into the evening.

Per McCarthy's approach throughout the late season, he hasn't taken the team outside for practice, whereas the Giants have spent the last two days in much warmer conditions at their training site in New Jersey.

The Packers believe the harsh lesson they received playing at Chicago and then having the experience of persevering in a snowstorm last Saturday in the divisional-round win over Seattle will help them make do Sunday.

"Saturday was a winter wonderland -- 30 degrees, no wind, snow. That's a nice day in Green Bay, Wisconsin. That's what it's supposed to be," McCarthy said. "As you remember, as a kid playing in the backyard when it's zero degrees, windy, it's different. It's a totally different atmosphere, and that's what we have to prepare for."

The team did practice inside Thursday with footballs that were put in a freezer overnight.

Ryan and kicker Mason Crosby kicked in Lambeau on Wednesday and were to do the same Friday.

Ryan, though, is preparing to kick Sunday without protection on his hands.

"I'm not a huge fan of the gloves yet," he said. "I just don't get the same feel on the ball. I worked on it a little bit (Wednesday). But, I think I'll probably be bare hands on Sunday."


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