Michael Lombardo: It is not that the Chargers dislike the Patriots. Rather, the Chargers firmly believe they deserved to win the playoff game last season and see this contest as an opportunity to prove themselves as the superior squad. But yes, several Chargers were annoyed with the antics of some of the Patriots players after the game. When Ellis Hobbs & Co. mocked Shawne Merriman atop the Chargers logo, it was a blatant sign of disrespect.
However, the Chargers would be hyped up for this contest no matter what happened in last year's playoffs. The Patriots are widely recognized as the premier team in the NFL, which makes them a perfect mark for a Chargers team known for picking on the league's lower class. The Chargers were 12-0 against non-playoff teams last season. If they can start off the 2007 season with wins over the Chicago Bears and the Patriots - two teams that combined to win 25 games last regular season - that would be a heck of a statement.
JS: LaDainian Tomlinson has had some choice words for the Patriots, accusing Bill Belichick of being "classless." Is L.T. just harboring bad feelings about the way the Chargers lost last year, or is this something deeper? And does he feel this way toward any other coaches?
ML: When Tomlinson deemed Belichick classless, he was speaking out of frustration. L.T. played under Belichick in the 2007 Pro Bowl, where Tomlinson aired out his grievances and left with a great deal of respect for Belichick. Of course, some of that respect has eroded with the discovery that Belichick is a cheater. Nonetheless, none of that will help the Chargers on the field unless Belichick is suspended prior to Sunday's game.
As for other coaches to rub some of the Chargers the wrong way, Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos is the first one that comes to mind. The Chargers play the Broncos twice a year and can do nothing but pray that their defensive linemen walk away without any ankle injuries due to Denver's questionable cut-blocking system. However, this fire is fueled mostly Chargers defenders as opposed to L.T.
JS: There is much talk in New England about players who have excessive celebrations for routine plays. While L.T. has shown tremendous class after scoring a touchdown, Shawne Merriman has drawn criticism for his "Lights Out" dance. Do you think Merriman's celebration is warranted all the time, and can you see how players around the league - like the Patriots - feel the need to poke fun at that? (Ironically Randy Moss was one of those players)
ML: Shawne Merriman has vowed to sack the "Lights Out" dance this season. All of that flair made him and easy target, something he no longer wants after getting slapped with a steroids suspension. Merriman will now let his play do the talking, which usually speaks volumes.
As for other players mocking the move, that just comes with the territory. Many teams showcased some form of the "Lights Out" dance when going up against the Chargers last season. The difference with the Patriots is that they actually won the game.
JS: The Chargers had trouble getting LT on track last week against a very solid Chicago Bears defense. Do you think it was more a result of what the Bears were able to do on defense, or problems with L.T. or the Chargers offense?
ML: The Bears defense poses a lot of problems for the Chargers up front. The Bears have an über-quick defensive line that is able to get good penetration against a Chargers offensive line that is more big than agile. Also, the Bears allowed their linebackers to run downhill behind their stunting linemen, creating good penetration while closing down any cutback lanes.
The problem with this strategy is that it allows Antonio Gates to get a free release downfield, which allowed him to catch nine passes for 107 yards and a score. It is a pick-your-poison scenario, and the Bears decided to let Gates inject the needle.
The Patriots have a bunch of big bangers up front, which is exactly the type of defense the Chargers love to run against. The two teams will exchange blows, with the Chargers hoping the Patriots wear down and allow some big runs late in the game. Tomlinson has historically excelled against the Patriots and there is little reason to expect any different this week. L.T. has the same five linemen in front of him, playing in the same scheme as last season.
ML: Defensive Coordinator Ted Cottrell will focus on pressuring Tom Brady. The Chargers do not have enough talent in the secondary to hang with those receivers, and Brady will pick them apart if given time. The Chargers will send Merriman and Shaun Phillips off the edges; they will use Luis Castillo on stunts; and they will blitz Marlon McCree, Eric Weddle and Drayton Florence from the secondary. The Chargers will give up some big plays like this, but they should make their share of plays as well.
I expect Brady to finish with more than 300 yards passing and a completion percentage in the seventies. However, if the Chargers can sack him three or more times and generate a couple of turnovers in the process, they will gladly take it.
JS: What's the Chargers biggest weakness now, and do you think the Patriots will be able to take advantage of it?
ML: The Chargers biggest weakness is a lack of talent at wide receiver. Other than Vincent Jackson, the Chargers have nobody that poses a threat outside the hashes. It's a shame Eric Parker is injured, because he would love to redeem himself after costing the Chargers the game in last year's playoffs. In his stead will be rookie Craig Davis and the streaky Malcom Floyd. Neither should be considered a serious threat.
The Patriots will try to funnel the Chargers offense between the hashes and leave little room for Tomlinson and Gates to operate. If they are successful, the Chargers will be reliant upon Jackson winning his one-on-one battle with Asante Samuel. Although Jackson has made great strides, it is unlikely he can best a player of Samuel's caliber.
JS: Prediction for Chargers Season?
ML: I believe the Chargers will finish around the 11-5 mark and repeat as AFC West champions. I also believe they will win at least one playoff game, something the team has not done since its Super Bowl season back in 1994. It is too early to deem them Super Bowl ready, but there is no team in the league that the Chargers cannot beat on any given Sunday.
Prediction for the game?
ML: A lot of things are looking good for the Chargers. The Patriots are mired in controversy. Meanwhile, the Chargers are as hyped up as they've ever been against a team they've historically done very well against. No matter how you slice it, this game means more to the Chargers than it does the Patriots.
Chargers 38, Patriots 27
Top 3 teams in the League
Michael Lombardo is the editor-in-chief of the SD bolt Report (SDBoltReport.com).