The Last Chance

The San Diego Chargers are built for now and the future. They have talent locked up for years into the future but they may never have a chance as good as this.

Is this Marty Schottenheimer's last chance to claim the one prize that has eluded him?

Schottenheimer, who is 5-12 in the playoffs, gets another chance Sunday when the Chargers face the New England Patriots in an AFC Divisional Playoff game.

The Chargers, the top seed, might give Schottenheimer his best opportunity yet. But if it doesn't happen -- and the Chargers must defeat the three-time champion Patriots to advance -- Schottenheimer won't be devastated.

"Do I want to win a Super Bowl? Absolutely," Schottenheimer said. "But at the end of the day if it doesn't happen that is not what I'm hanging my whole career on."

Might he hang it up -- not by choice -- if he doesn't win Sunday? It's no secret that Schottenheimer has an icy relationship with general manager A. J. Smith. And Smith, along with team president Dean Spanos, has stated that they expect this Chargers team which set a franchise record with 14 regular-season wins, should go deep in the playoffs.

If not, maybe Schottenheimer is out, although he has a year left on his contract. What is certain that no contract extension talks have started.

And about that Super Bowl hex? The man who has 200 regular-season wins would be thrilled if he landed in Miami come Feb. 4.

If not, so be it.

"It is, it has been, and will always be about relationships that I've made with the people I've come in contact with," Schottenheimer said about his coaching career.

"He's got that rock hanging over his head like Bill (Cowher) had of not winning a Super Bowl yet, but he's going to get one eventually," said Chiefs coach Herm Edwards, a branch off the Schottenheimer coaching tree. "Maybe this year if everything falls for them."

Added Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman: "He doesn't have as many rings as he should. But we are going to try to put one on his finger this year."


Last year, the Patriots brought safety Artrell Hawkins and fullback Heath Evans on board after the start of the season and both players had an immediate impact. This season, it was Ray Mickens. The 34-year old cornerback was signed by New England on Dec. 4 and has been a key contributor in the Patriots nickel defense ever since.

The 11-year veteran was a third-round draft pick of the Jets in 1996. He started 36 games during his nine seasons in New York. He was also used as a nickel back when the Jets went to their sub packages. In 1998, Mickens was part of a Jets defense coordinated by Bill Belichick that helped New York get to the AFC Championship Game. After missing the 2004 season with a knee injury, Mickens spent last year playing under former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel in Cleveland.

Mickens' familiarity with Belichick's system is a big reason why he's been able to get on the field so quickly and carve a role with the Patriots.

"If I wasn't familiar with the system, it would have been tough to just step in," Mickens said. "I was familiar with this system and with all of the coaches. So it was a fairly easy transition for me to make."

The veteran worked out for the Patriots back in September. Once Eugene Wilson was lost for the season, New England needed to add some depth to its defensive backfield. Having played for Belichick in the past and already knowing his scheme, brining in Mickens made sense for the Patriots.

Even though he kept himself in good physical condition, Mickens admitted that it's not the same as preparing for the upcoming season with the camaraderie of teammates.

"The hardest thing about coming in late like I did is getting to know your teammates," Mickens said. "When you don't take part in training camp, you don't create that chemistry with the other guys. Coming here, with all the veterans they have on this team, it made it easier to fit in and get comfortable."

The 5-8, 180-pound Mickens is best suited as a nickel back because of his size and the way he plays. Playing inside, his lack of size can be masked by matching him up with smaller receivers. In those situations, Mickens' speed and quickness are a big plus. Still, he does have to cover bigger receivers on occasion as well.

"I just have to rely on positioning and technique," Mickens said about matching up with taller receivers. "As a defensive back, if you are in good position, you can always make a play on the ball no matter how tall you are."

Playing in the slot is where Mickens has excelled on the Patriots defense. He entered the Miami game and has kept his role as the Patriots primary nickel cornerback ever since. Mickens hasn't put up great numbers or probably caught the eye of the casual observer. However, his coverage skills in the slot has prevented one of the NFL's top defensive units from missing a beat, despite losing some key members in the secondary.

"I knew some people were hurt and they needed help in the secondary," Mickens said. "The Patriots gave me a call and I appreciate them trusting in my abilities and giving me an opportunity. I don't take it lightly. This could be my last stop in the NFL. That's how I'm looking at it."

Whether or not this is Mickens final stop will be determined in the offseason. For right now, he's proven to be another solid mid-season acquisition for the Patriots.

"I'm trying to make the most of this opportunity," he said. "I always knew a team could call and I'm really glad that call came from Coach Belichick. Everything we do as far as practicing and meetings, I don't take any of that stuff for granted. When you've been in this league a long time and haven't had to sit out, sometimes you take the little things for granted. I look at everything that's happened and just feel I've been blessed to get another chance to play for such a great organization."

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