San Diego's Toughest Test Comes This Week

The Chargers lead a deep pack of teams chasing the AFC's two wild-card positions. San Diego is assured a playoff spot if it wins three of its final four games, while winning two more contests still leaves the Bolts with a great shot of qualifying. The remaining schedule is tough, though, starting this week against the Patriots.

Looking at San Diego's remaining four games, this week's game against the Patriots appears the most challenging.

Yes, the Broncos are also 9-3, but the Chargers have a good blue-print when battling Denver. It doesn't always result in wins (San Diego is 1-3 against the Broncos since Mike McCoy took over as head coach), but the Chargers always play their division rivals tough.

The season's last two games are on the road, but the 49ers and Chiefs are not in the same class as the Patriots and Broncos. San Francisco hosts the Chargers one week after it plays on the road in Seattle; if that game goes like the first 49ers-Seahawks game, San Diego could be getting a deflated 49ers team that just had its playoff hopes dashed.

The Chiefs beat the Chargers earlier this season in San Diego, but Kansas City is now a game back as the result of back-to-back divisional losses. Kansas City has two tough road games left before it hosts the Chargers (at Arizona and at Pittsburgh), so it remains to be seen if the Chiefs will still be in the playoff hunt by the time they host San Diego in Week 17.

Add it all up and the biggest challenge left on San Diego's plate comes this Sunday in prime time.

"As stacked as everybody as, as close as our division is, as close as the AFC North is, there are a lot of teams that are in playoff mode," said Jarret Johnson.

The Patriots will come in on fire, motivated after losing for the first time in eight weeks last Sunday when they fell in Green Bay, 26-21. New England is jockeying with Denver for the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC and does not want to fall a game back with three to play (go ahead and pencil in a Denver win this week, at home against the Bills).

The Patriots came straight to San Diego from Green Bay and are spending the week practicing at UC San Diego and hanging out with Justin Bieber. Their game against the Chargers -- who will be rocking their Powder Blues -- will be Sunday's final contest. By then, more AFC playoff hopefuls will have endured losses, as the Bengals host the Steelers, the Dolphins host the Ravens, the Browns host the Colts, the Broncos host the Bills and the Cardinals host the Chiefs.

The Patriots provide a lot of tough match-ups for the Chargers. Can Philip Rivers torch New England's secondary -- led by Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner -- the same way he did Baltimore's? Can San Diego's pass rush, which has been spotty all season, disrupt Tom Brady? Can the special teams clean up their act after a disastrous showing against the Ravens? It will take a trio of yeses to get the Chargers a fourth consecutive victory.

"We have a must-win mindset. We're coming out with the ultimate confidence," Keenan Allen said.

If the Chargers lose on Sunday night, they will still have a shot to win two of their final three games and eke into the playoffs for a second consecutive season. But if they win, it changes the entire conversation. Suddenly, the Chargers will be in the discussion for the best team in the conference, and the subsequent game against the Broncos may be more about seeding than qualifying.

How will the Chargers fare over the next two weeks? Discuss in the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a long-time contributor to the team. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 18 years and covered the team since '03. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

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