Jon Scott: Patriots Strong Safety Rodney Harrison was the glue that held together a fragile secondary for the Patriots last year, and will be the biggest contributor they could ill afford to lose. Harrison's season ending injury means that the younger inexperienced players on the Patriots roster are going to have to step their game up. The LBs become the defacto leaders of the defense now that Harrison is out. While there is other veterans in the mix in the secondary like Tyrone Poole, Duane Starks, Chad Scott, the unit's strength lie in their young DBs like Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel.
The Patriots are in desperate need of healthy bodies, and they addressed that in part by signing free agent safety Michael Stone a former Arizona Cardinal.
Denis Savage: This guy is glue (and I had this answer before Jon did). The San Diego Chargers know all too well what his absence tells. The Bolts still lack a bona fide presence in the secondary that ensures accountability. Shipping him off unceremoniously set the team back.
The Patriots have been able to overcome injury through the years but nothing of this magnitude. He is a leader in more ways than one.
This may be one injury that they can't recover from and will certainly feel the effects of at some point this year.
The passing attack of the Patriots versus the San Diego secondary.
Jon Scott: The Patriots went into an aggressive passing attack against the Steelers almost as a necessity to protect Tom Brady from the constant blitz pressure being applied by Steelers defensive coordinator Dick Labeau. Labeau, known for his aggressive zone-blitz schemes, had used safety Troy Polamalu and his outside linebackers Joey Porter and Clark Haggans to try to pressure Brady. When the Patriots tried to use max protection, it appeared they were playing into the Steelers hands. But when the Patriots spread the field and went to an aggressive passing game, they picked apart the Steelers secondary with dinks and dunks to the tune of 372 yards - Tom Brady's second-best day ever passing as a pro.
The Chargers defense is similar to the Steelers in that it's an aggressive defense, strong against the run, but susceptible to the pass. They currently have the 25th ranked defense (14th vs the run, 28th vs the pass) overall yielding 352 yards per game, 254 on average through the air. This plays right into what the Patriots want to do, from a purely statistical standpoint. New England would love to get Corey Dillon back to his 4.7 ypc, 109 yards per game average of 2004, but that doesn't look to happen in this game. Which means…Tom Brady will have to continue to wear his arm down throwing the ball at a career record pace. Brady has been so prolific through the air, he's on pace to set new personal bests for yards (5000+) and attempts (656) if this keeps up.
Look for more of Brady to Givens and Branch setting up the routes that the Patriots want, with Brady checking down to Brown or one of the TE's, if the downfield patterns are covered. If The Patriots don't have to keep their tight ends in for protection, Ben Watson should have a big game.
Denis Savage: The Chargers have maintained that if you stop the run, you have a good chance of winning. Bottling up Corey Dillon will be priority one and a close second is pressure.
They went into the season expecting a greater effort up front to aid the secondary. But that has not fully transpired. They will look to exploit the line by overloading that side. But everyone realizes this and an extra second given to Brady is one that he will use effectively.
With Quentin Jammer struggling, Brady will look his way early and often. Expect another big day as his ability to read the blitz and react is amongst the best in the league. Jamar Fletcher figures to dress this week to aid the secondary.
What part of the Chargers offense will get the most attention from the Pats defense? (LT, Gates, receivers)
Denis Savage: The obvious. Stop LaDainian Tomlinson and you hope you have stopped the Chargers.
In the first two games this year, Denver and Dallas did a solid job in bringing heavy run and pass blitzes, forcing the Chargers to abandon their preference of LT left, right and center. Tomlinson was relegated to a supporting role, and more precisely as a blocking back to keep Drew Brees off his rear. The Giants either failed to look at the game tape of the two prior weeks or decided they knew the tactic - whatever they did was obviously a mistake.
Bill Belichick will be creative and try to exploit the offensive line and force Brees to beat them. Playing man-up, the Chargers will have some chances down the field but Brees has yet to prove he has the vision to see the hot read and sling the ball.
Jon Scott: The Patriots have little choice in the priority they must place on stopping Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson (LT). LT managed to dismantle a normally sound New York Giants defense last week, with a breakout game. The Patriots can ill afford to allow LT to have half as good a game if they expect to win.
LT isn't the only threat San Diego brings; Antonio Gates provides great matchups for the Chargers to exploit against the Patriots smaller and younger defensive secondary. With the loss of Rodney Harrison, on top of the losses they've already sustained, and injuries to the few experienced players they have left, the Patriots secondary is ready to be exploited.
The opportunity for San Diego to attack that secondary really keys on LT. If he gets rolling, then New England will have to move the safety up and crowd the line. If they don't get LT running, then the Patriots excellent front four will harass Drew Brees just like they did to Kerry Collins and Ben Roethlisberger.
5. Who will win and why?
Denis Savage: Every week the opponent that enters Gillette Stadium believes they will be the one to stop the winning streak. Every week they are denied. If there was a time to play them at home, this is it. Losing offensive linemen and one of the centerpieces to the defense may be an obstacle that the Patriots can't overcome - for once. But this tune has been played before. Still, the Chargers at 1-2 represent a serious threat. They are still backed up against the wall and need a win to avenge two early losses and climb out of the depths of Hades. After the offense rolled at home against New York, the confidence is high. But the offense wasn't the problem. The pass defense remains a question and a sliver of improvement from this group could provide the one thing many have tried and failed - a win. This week it happens and my personal streak of picking Chargers games each week goes to a perfect 4-0.
Chargers 31 Patriots 27
Jon Scott: The funny thing about predictions is that it isn't what the expert thinks will happen that is the reason they're wrong, it's the unknown – an injury here, a turnover there – that's what makes predicting games difficult. This week, the Patriots have one of their toughest challenges trying to overcome the injury bug as they host a very talented San Diego offense. If there was a time where an opponent was poised to benefit from the Patriots bad luck, this is it – meaning the smart pick is San Diego.
It's going to be tough to stop LT, but for some odd reason, when things look at their most desperate, that's when the Patriots surprise you. Just when you thought they're done, they do something more amazing. It's too hard to pick against a team that seems to have found a solution to their running woes, and playing at home gives them the boost they need right now.
Patriots win another close one 27-24