Flash back to January: The Patriots and the Chargers meet in the AFC Championship Game as arguably not just the two best teams in the conference, but in the entire NFL.
Flash back to August: The Patriots and the Chargers are popular picks to remain the class of the AFC in the 2008 season.
Cut to today: The Chargers are 2-3, two games out of first place in the AFC West behind the Broncos -- who have already beaten them head-to-head. The Patriots are 3-1, but their aura of invincibility that took a hit with the Super Bowl loss to the Giants was demolished when Tom Brady went down with a season-ending left knee injury in the opener.
How badly have things gone for the Patriots and the Chargers this season? Both have already lost to the Dolphins -- the same team that went 1-15 last year.
All of which makes the Sunday night New England-San Diego showdown a critical game for two teams desperately trying to convince the league (and themselves) that they are still contenders.
The Patriots (3-1) got some positive signs last week about the development of backup quarterback Matt Cassel. He threw a beautiful 66-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss, but he threw two interceptions against San Francisco. Cassel also guided a ball-control offense that racked up nearly 40 minutes of possession time.
The Chargers appeared to have recovered from the infamous Ed Hochuli blown call that cost them a victory over the Broncos, winning their next two games. But then they stumbled at Miami, leaving them desperate for a win as they return home to face the Patriots.
The Sunday night loser won't be eliminated from the playoffs, but for a team that was so exalted so recently, it might feel that way.
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