Offensive Matchups to Watch
ML: RB LaDainian Tomlinson vs. OLB Adalius Thomas
Tomlinson has come under scrutiny because of his low rushing average (3.7 ypc), but there is another area where he's struggled this season -- blitz pickups. LT must rectify that shortcoming against Thomas, who has three sacks through five games. Thomas has enjoyed big games against the Chargers, including Week 2 last year, when he returned an interception 65 yards for a score. Tomlinson must muster up the wherewithal to deliver some big plays despite Thomas' looming presence.
JS: New England's Front Seven vs. Tomlinson
RB LaDainian Tomlinson
If New England can't stop Tomlinson from rolling, it will be a death sentence for their questionable secondary. New England was picked apart by Chad Pennington in Week 3 and by J.T. O'sullivan in Week 5. The Patriots used an exotic scheme to slow down San Francisco's Frank Gore by fielding just one or two defensive linemen and five or six linebackers. The defense was faster and able to plug any hole Gore tried to run through, limiting the talented runner to just 54 yards. Runners are averaging 4.9 yards per carry against the Patriots defense (T-fifth worst overall). Much of those yards came from the Dolphins and Ronnie Brown's 62-yard touchdown run. Without that one run, the Patriots rush defense improves to a more respectable 4.3 avg. (14th overall). Slowing down Tomlinson will help the Patriots defense get off the field, another key to winnin time of possession.
Defensive Matchups to Watch
ML: LB Matt Wilhelm vs. TE Ben Watson
Over the first five weeks of the season, starting tight ends have averaged five catches for 68.6 yards and a touchdown against the Chargers. Although Watson is off to a slow start this year because of a knee injury, he has the skills to exploit San Diego's deficiencies over the middle. This is where Wilhelm must step up and earn his keep. After playing well as a first-year starter last season, Wilhelm has regressed in 2008 and is losing a sizable chunk of his minutes to Tim Dobbins. The only reason Dobbins hasn't supplanted Wilhelm in the starting lineup is that Wilhelm is superior in coverage. Wilhelm must show his coverage skills against Watson or risk falling out of the rotation.
JS: QB Matt Cassel vs Chargers Pass Rush
CB Antonio Cromartie
ML: The Chargers will win if…
The defense holds New England's rushing attack under 100 net yards. San Diego wants to make the Patriots offense one-dimensional and put the game on the shoulders of Matt Cassel. That should open up pass-rush opportunities for a defense that thrives on sacking the quarterback, generating turnovers and providing its offense with a short field. The keys are to keep Laurence Maroney from getting on track and to contain Kevin Faulk on third downs.
Coach Norv Turner
They put on another bipolar performance. The Chargers have a dangerous tendency of falling behind early and expending too much energy coming back late. San Diego needs to play 60 minutes of consistent football to knock off a disciplined and talented team like the Patriots. If the Chargers fall behind by more than a score, chants of "Marty! Marty!" may rain down again, as they did in Week 4 last season.
JS: The Patriots will win if…
They can use the same tactics that worked against the Chargers in their three losses. New England has to find a way to put pressure on Philip Rivers while not giving up the big play or allowing Tomlinson (or Darren Sproles) to run wild. It's a tall task for a defense that was in the bottom third of the League prior to last week's win over the struggling 49ers.
JS: The Patriots lose win if…
Matt Cassel has to bring the team from behind. It's simple: If Cassel is asked to throw to win in a hurry, Patriots fans can expect the worst. Only in his fourth game as a starter, Cassel has yet to figure out exotic blitz packages or find a way to check off to the uncovered receiver like Brady. San Diego has the defense to make Cassel look pedestrian, which is why it's crucial for New England to either establish an early lead or at least keep the game within reach (one score).
ML: Prediction: Chargers 38, Patriots 20
There are several reasons I like the Chargers in this one. San Diego needs the win more with its season hanging in the balance, and the Chargers have always played well with their backs against the wall. The energy of the home crowd will help -- a facet that will only be heightened by the intensity of the rivalry and the primetime venue. Finally, I really like the young receivers who will be subbing for Chris Chambers. Legedu Naanee and Malcom Floyd have been itching to play and I expect both of them to make the most of the opportunity.
JS: Prediction: Chargers 24, Patriots 20
I'm predicting what my head tells me will happen in this game for this column. I actually took the Patriots in all my other pick'em pools based upon the vibe I got from watching the Chargers and all the preview research I did. This time, I broke down the possessions (7-9 each) and I just see San Diego scoring TDs more often than the Patriots. New England has struggled to score in the red zone, and when opponents get in position, New England hasn't been able to stop them.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.
Jon Scott has covered the NFL since 1995, and is a regular contributor to Patriots Insider and Comcast SportsNet New England. A member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA), Jon has been a guest analyst on the NFL Network, Sporting News Radio, ESPN Radio and other outlets around the web.
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