Patriots know Chargers provide a challenge

Coming off Sunday afternoon's hard-fought dismantling of the Jets, New England knows what lies ahead, and that's Marty Schottenheimer's roster of well-stocked talent.

For the second-straight year the Patriots head west on Divisional playoff weekend. And for the second straight year Bill Belichick's team brings an impressive winning streak and growing confidence with it to an underdog role against the AFC West division champs.

"We know what we are going out there to face," safety Artrell Hawkins said. "They've been the best team in the NFL from start to finish this year. It's going to be tough, first of all playing away from home and secondly playing against such an explosive offense and a good defense. We have our work cut out for us."

The Chargers (14-2) may very well be the most all-around talented team in the game. From NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson and Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates to Defensive Player of the Year finalist Shawne Merriman San Diego has the potential in all three phases of the game to dominant almost any opponent on any given week.

And while the Patriots (13-4) have answered some of the questions that hindered the team during its midseason struggles - including just one turnover in the their last four games - going on the road in the postseason to take on a team coming out of the bye week is a huge challenge.

New England was playing well a year ago late in the season and following a Wild Card Weekend 28-3 win over the Jaguars. But that all fell apart when Tom Brady and Co. laid a self-described egg against the Broncos at Mile High. In that game key veteran playoff contributors like Troy Brown, Kevin Faulk, Adam Vinatieri and even Brady made the mistakes that cost New England a chance to make a run at an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl. New England turned the ball over five times, Brady threw a critical interception that Champ Bailey returned 103-yards and for the first time in the Belichick/Brady era, and the Patriots were playoff losers.

Make no mistake New England has gotten things rolling in the right direction since a demoralizing Dec. 10 21-0 shutout loss in Miami. Aside from Rodney Harrison, who may remain sidelined with an MCL injury suffered in the season finale in Tennessee, the Patriots have gotten healthier in recent weeks. Tight end Benjamin Watson, nose tackle Vince Wilfork and rookie running back Laurence Maroney were back making plays on Wild Card weekend.

The experienced Patriots -- the team that's been here so many times and had so much success in the postseason under Belichick -- are back in the divisional round playoff hunt for the fifth time in the last six years. Three of those, when New England had the benefit of playing divisional weekend at home following a bye, ended with the Patriots continuing to roll all the way to Super Bowl victory. The other ended in a dismal display in Denver that brought the team and its fans crashing back to reality of an early offseason.

It will take a different route this season, and will have to including a pair of impressive road wins if the Patriots have hopes of playing in Super Bowl XLI on the first weekend of February in Miami. But right now those in the New Engalnd locker room believe that can happen and that makes them dangerous.

"We always like our chances wherever we go, but it's going to take our best effort," Watson said. "They have a great football team. They had the best football team all year long in the NFL. So it's going to take A-plus effort and A-plus execution from everybody."

How does the latest chapter play out? Do the talented Chargers play to their full abilities with the advantage of playing at home after the bye? Do the Patriots get on a roll of momentum laced with experience that continues for another week under the guidance of the best coach and quarterback combo in the postseason?

Stay tuned.

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