After discarding the Jets, the Patriots will face a much tougher test this Sunday. New England travels to San Diego to take on the Chargers in what should be a physical matchup between two of the NFL's best teams.
The Chargers enter the postseason on a roll, winners of 10 consecutive games. Led by the NFL's Most Valuable Player, LaDainian Tomlinson, and a physical defense, San Diego posted a league-best 14-2 record and set itself up as the team to beat in the AFC.
Tomlinson had a season for the ages. He set an NFL record by scoring 31 touchdowns and led the league with 1,815 rushing yards. Tomlinson is a nightmare for opposing defenses. He's shifty, fast and has great vision. When the Chargers get inside the 10-yard line, there's a good chance the drive will end with L.T. crossing the goal line. It will be an interesting matchup this week pitting the league's best red-zone runner against the Patriots' top-ranked red-zone defense.
"He's looked pretty good to me, unfortunately, every time we've seen him," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said about Tomlinson. "We're usually looking at the back of his jersey. 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."
New England's defense ranked fifth against the run this season, allowing just 94.2 yards per game. The problem a defense has when facing Tomlinson is even if it stops him on the ground, he can be a big factor as a receiver out of the backfield. Tomlinson was the Chargers' second-leading receiver this year, catching 56 passes for 508 yards. This could be an advantage for San Diego because the Patriots' aging linebackers have had trouble covering quick pass-catching running backs this year.
While Tomlinson is the straw that stirs the Chargers offense, first-year starting quarterback Philip Rivers' success has allowed the team to be balanced. Rivers beat out Tom Brady for a Pro Bowl berth after throwing for 3,388 yards, 22 touchdowns and completing 61.7 percent of his passes. The young quarterback will be making his first postseason appearance, but he's shown poise and leadership beyond his years.
Rivers' top target is Antonio Gates. The big tight end is on his way to Hawaii for the third straight year. He led the Chargers with 71 receptions for 924 yards and nine touchdowns. Without great receivers to take pressure off him, Gates continues to use his big frame and soft hands to put up impressive numbers. Last year against the Patriots, he caught six passes for 108 yards in the Chargers' 41-17 win. If Rodney Harrison is unable to go this week, it will only add to the headaches for New England when it comes to stopping the NFL's best tight end.
This will be the quickest, most physical defense the Patriots offense will have seen all season. The Chargers have 28 takeaways and 61 sacks on the year. New England's offensive line has had trouble with quick pass rushers, and San Diego has its share of them.
Shawne Merriman led the NFL with 17 sacks, despite missing four games because of a suspension. Merriman is arguably the most feared defensive player in the league right now, and he should pose the same problems Jason Taylor did for the Patriots offensive line. San Diego's other outside linebacker, Shaun Phillips, is no slouch himself, recording 11.5 sacks this year.
The Chargers' version of the 3-4 defense is anchored by Jamal Williams. The big nose tackle commands double teams on virtually every play, allowing Merriman and Phillips to cause havoc. Second-year defensive end Luis Castillo is another stellar player up front for San Diego, chipping in with seven sacks and playing well against the run.
"Well, we couldn't do much against them last year," Belichick said. "They're a good defensive football team. They're a good football team, period. We have a lot of work to do. I'm not minimizing that. So, to sit there and say that we have a lot to do, absolutely. I couldn't agree with you more."
The Chargers will be by far and away the best team the Patriots have faced all season. Led by an NFL-high nine Pro Bowlers, San Diego has stars on both sides of the ball. The Patriots excel in the underdog role, and any team coached by Belichick and quarterbacked by Brady has a chance in the playoffs. However, the Patriots will need their best effort of the year to knock off the red-hot Chargers and advance to another AFC Championship Game.