The Chargers ranked No. 1 in sacks this season with 61. A big part of that had to do with Shawne Merriman's league-leading 17. Shaun Phillips added 11.5 on the other side, despite both players missing time this season. New England's offensive line had a terrible time with the Dolphins' speed off the edge, and while Jason Taylor is a special player, the Chargers bring pressure from all over the place. How tackles Matt Light and Nick Kaczur hold up will go a long way in determining which team wins this game.
If QB Tom Brady gets time in the pocket, the San Diego secondary can be picked on. CBs Quentin Jammer and Drayton Florence have improved, although quarterbacks who have had time to throw the ball were able to hit some big plays on them this year. This was especially evident when Merriman was serving his four-game suspension. If Brady's offensive line plays poorly, the Patriots offense has no chance in this game.
The Chargers love making teams one-dimensional on offense. That allows their unrelenting pass rush to take over the game and cause turnovers. The Patriots have to guard against this. At times this year, they've given up on the run too early and gone strictly to the air. If they do that this week, they'll be playing right into San Diego's hands.
It's no picnic running the ball on the Chargers with big NT Jamal Williams taking up space in the middle of San Diego's defense. Still, the Patriots need to be patient. RBs Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney are both healthy and fresh, so they can take the pounding that comes with running against a physical defense. Brady will be a factor, but the Patriots need to stay balanced on offense.
GAME PLAN: All the Patriots have to do on Sunday is control the best running back in the game. LaDainian Tomlinson is as close to unstoppable right now as a back can be. However, the Patriots rush defense has been strong all year. The Ravens were able to hold L.T. to 3.8 yards per carry back in October. That's what New England's defense needs to do this Sunday. Tomlinson is going to make his share of plays, but as long as the Patriots don't allow long gains, they'll be in good shape. Tackling will be of the utmost importance this week. Patriots defenders need to tackle well and not let Tomlinson turn a 4-yard gain into a 60-yard touchdown run. If they can control Tomlinson and make Philip Rivers beat them, the Patriots have a chance.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots LT Matt Light vs. Chargers OLB Shawne Merriman -- Merriman is an animal. He led the NFL with 17 sacks, despite missing four games. The Chargers like to move Merriman around, so it will be up to both Light and Nick Kaczur to keep the Pro Bowler out of Tom Brady's face. He can beat offensive linemen with his speed around the corner or use his strength to bull-rush them into the backfield. Merriman is the most feared pass rusher in the NFL and can take over a game as he did last year against the Colts.
Patriots LB Tedy Bruschi vs. Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson -- Tomlinson is both the reigning NFL MVP and rushing champion. He's the most dangerous offensive weapon in the game today. The Patriots have a strong defensive line, but it's a guarantee that L.T. will have some opportunities in the open field. In those situations, Bruschi and the rest of the Patriots defenders have to tackle him and limit his gains, or he'll have a big day.
INJURY IMPACT: After missing the Patriots' first playoff game last week, S Rodney Harrison will be out again Sunday when New England plays his old team. James Sanders has played very well filling in at safety this season, but it's hard to replace Harrison's leadership and experience in the postseason. The veteran is the emotional leader of the Patriots defense and leaves a huge void when he's not on the field. Harrison not only comes up with key interceptions and is strong in run support, but he also directs other players where to line up on the field. He's so savvy that he has a good idea of what the offense is going to do before the ball is even snapped. A team just can't replace that kind of leadership, regardless of who steps in for him. Hopefully for the Patriots, they'll be able to control TE Antonio Gates and RB LaDainian Tomlinson without Harrison.
--S Rodney Harrison (knee) continues to nurse his injured leg and will miss another opportunity to play against the coach that decided he was washed up in Marty Schottenheimer. Harrison is listed as out and will miss his second consecutive postseason game. James Sanders or Chad Scott will replace Harrison in the lineup.
-- FB Heath Evans (shin) missed porttions of team practice during the week, but participated on Friday. Evans is still listed as questionable for Sunday.
--OLB Pierre Woods wore a black practice jersey, meaning he was the practice player of the week.
--TE Benjamin Watson (knee) played for the first time in a month last Sunday against the Jets. He's listed as questionable for this week's game.
--WR Bam Childress (shin) was inactive against the Jets. The second-year receiver hasn't played much this season and is questionable 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 Sunday when the Patriots face the Chargers.
The Chargers' defensive line is in but of a flux, but there's good news with the return of Luis Castillo.
An ankle sprain cost Castillo four games in the middle of the season, then he sat out the final two games to rest it. Castillo has seven sacks, but more than that he's a force at the point of attack, seldom losing his feet and getting plowed.
But the question is how long he can go without becoming fatigued or having the ankle start to restrict him.
What has made the defensive line so tough is it is able to use a rotation which keeps everyone fresh. But with an uncertainly on how long Castillo can go and the injuries issues to Cesaire and Robinson, this is a part of the Chargers' defense that is worth watching.
GAME PLAN: 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.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots run-blocking with C Dan Koppen vs. the Chargers run defense, with NT Jamal Williams. There might not be a more important battle than smack dab in the middle. If Koppen -- with help from Gs Stephen Neal and Logan Mankins -- can keep 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.
--Chargers running game, led by MVP LaDainian Tomlinson vs. the Pats run defense, which is ranked No. 5. 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.
--Chargers short passing game, featuring All-Pro TE Antonio Gates vs. the Pats' pass defense. 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.
INJURY IMPACT: The Chargers, thanks to last weekend's bye, are relatively healthy. Only Cesaire and Jue missed practice on Wednesday. Cesaire likely won't go Sunday; Jue will go on Sunday.
--S Bhawoh Jue didn't practice Wednesday, but is expected to go later in the week and play on Sunday.
--DE Jacques Cesaire didn't practice and might not before the game arrives. His availability could be a game-time decision; he could sit all together and hope the Chargers advance.
--WR Eric Parker is back fielding punts after a sore neck had him give way to Keenan McCardell and Cletis Gordon. McCardell could still be used in obvious fair-catch situations.
--ILB Randall Godfrey is back running at near full speed after a tender hamstring cost him the final two regular-season games. Godfrey, in his 11th season, is enjoying a solid year.
--QB Philip Rivers is no longer in a walking boot for his sprained foot and is back taking his regular amount of snaps.