KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:30 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
2006 RANKINGS: Patriots: offense 11th (12th rush, 12th pass); defense 6th (5th rush, 12th pass). Chargers: offense 4th (2nd rush, 16th pass); defense 10th (7th rush, 13th pass)
PREDICTION: Chargers 33-17
KEYS TO THE GAME:
The playoff-savvy Patriots are a scary first opponent for the young Chargers. QB Philip Rivers, who will make his first playoff start for San Diego, didn't play well down the stretch and has admitted to being hyped for the game all week. He needs to channel that energy and make enough plays downfield to give RB LaDainian Tomlinson a chance to find holes on the ground.
If Tomlinson can do what he's done in the past two games against the Pats -- rushed for 351 yards, four touchdowns -- then that will take pressure off of Rivers, making his first playoff start. Like the Chargers, it comes down to the Pats' tackle in the middle, Vince Wilfork. If he can impose his will on Pro Bowl C Nick Hardwick, that could minimize the damage Tomlinson does. And if that happens, the Pats will look to tee off on Rivers, whose play was shaky down the stretch.
"We're usually looking at the back of his jersey," Belichick said. "We haven't done very well against him. He's killed a lot of people besides us, and he's killed us. But like I said, I haven't seen all that many games on him this year, but the ones I've seen, a team might keep him down for a few carries, but it's just a matter of time before he breaks out, in one way or another, and gets in the end zone."
If the Pats decide to slide an eighth player in the box in their bid to contain Tomlinson, it could open the middle of the field for Gates. The Pats' have to figure out how to handle Gates, as he went for 100 receiving yards the last time they played. If the safeties chip in, that means the corners could be left in single coverage. The Pats' cornerbacks, Asante Samuel (10 interceptions) and Artrell Hawkins, are decent. But if they wind up in single coverage too many times, they will be exposed.
Defensively, San Diego will focus on RBs Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney in an effort to create long-yardage passing situations. That's when the Chargers unleash their fierce pass rush led by OLB Shawne Merriman (11.5 sacks in the past six games).
There might not be a more important battle than smack dab in the middle. If Dan Koppen -- with help from guards Stephen Neal and Logan Mankins -- can keep Jamal Williams engaged, that will open some room at the line for the running backs. And if that happens, the Pats won't be faced with many third-and-long situations, where the Chargers could unleash their lethal pass rush. Few can handle Williams, an All-Pro, all alone. So while the focus will be on how Koppen holds up, it's imperative he gets some help from his guards or Williams will blow up the Pats' running plays.
Expect short drops and quick throws by QB Tom Brady as the Patriots attempt to thwart the pressure and exploit the Chargers' secondary.
The Chargers love bragging about the improved play of their secondary, and there is no doubting its performance has improved.
But among the reasons for that is an improved pass rush, which makes the ball get out of the pocket fast. Look for the Chargers to try and baffle Brady with an array of blitz packages that again will have the secondary looking good. But the Chargers have to be careful in blitzing too much, as Brady is so good at getting the ball out fast that receivers in single coverages could collect some long gains by shaking just one tackle after the catch.
FAST FACTS: Patriots: Brady is 11-1 in the postseason and his 1.25 interception ratio in the playoffs is the best in NFL history (five INTs in 401 attempts). Are 15-0 in the postseason when leading at halftime. Chargers: Are 8-0 at home this season. Marty Schottenheimer has reach the playoffs for the 13th time as a head coach, third-most all-time behind Hall of Fame coaches Don Shula (19) and Tom Landry (18).
--S Rodney Harrison and FB Heath Evans were the lone players absent from the media-access portion of Thursday's practice. Harrison is listed as out and will miss his second straight postseason game. Evans is questionable (shin) for Sunday.
--Rookie NT Le Kevin Smith was wearing a No. 76 jersey at practice on Thursday. Smith was playing the role of Chargers All-Pro nose tackle Jamal Williams.
--TE Benjamin Watson played for the first time in a month last Sunday against the Jets. He's listed as questionable (knee) for this week's game.
--WR Bam Childress was inactive against the Jets. The second-year receiver hasn't played much this season and is questionable (shin) for Sunday.
--LB Mike Vrabel continues to nurse a bad back. Vrabel started last week, although he's still on the Patriots' injury report. The linebacker is probable and should be in the starting lineup this Sunday when the Patriots face the Chargers.
-- DE Jacques Cesaire (knee) didn't practice again on Thursday and appears to be out for Sunday, despite him being upgraded to questionable.
-- QB Philip Rivers continues to work with is sprained right foot taped. He took every rep.
-- DE Derreck Robinson (foot) worked on Thursday. He's a key part of the defensive line rotation.
-- DE Luis Castillo hasn't missed any practice snaps this week. Castillo missed the last two games and four games earlier this year with a sprained ankle.