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Pats expect few surprises Sunday

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It's not Patriots versus Jets or even Patriots versus Colts. But when the San Diego Chargers visit Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon for New England's home opener, it will be the seventh time in seven seasons that the two foes have tangled.

As Patriots coach Bill Belichick noted this week, "It feels like we're back in the division again."

To be sure, the Patriots-Chargers "rivalry" has lost some of its luster since LaDainian Tomlinson needed to be restrained for what he felt was the Patriots dancing and mocking the Chargers after an AFC divisional playoff victory at Qualcomm Stadium in January of 2007. Tomlinson has since joined the Jets, only adding fuel to a true rivalry.

But plenty of familiar faces remain on both sides, and despite preparing to meet for the fifth time since that playoff dust-up, the focus now is simply on a battle of two teams that wouldn't be surprised to see each other yet again when the playoffs roll around in January.

If the Patriots are going to focus on the past, it should be last year's meeting in San Diego, where the Chargers limited New England to 179 yards of total offense (even if the Patriots were able to sneak out with a 23-20 triumph).

"They were pretty good last year," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "They led the league in [yards allowed]. It was our fewest production all season when we played them. ... Didn't do really well in the red area, didn't really run it great, certainly didn't throw it great, didn't protect as well as we're capable. We were pretty fortunate last year playing them. Hopefully we can execute better.

"They have a good team. They have a good defense. It's veterans, they're aggressive, they're tough, they can tackle, they're experienced, they have a very good offense that puts up points on the board and can do it very quickly. Special teams are much improved from last season. It's one of the best teams in the AFC, it always has been, they've been that way for a long time."

The Patriots can't lean on the past, but here's one thing they have working for them: Since 1973, New England is 9-1 in home games against the Chargers (San Diego previously dominated the series, going 7-2-1 from 1960 to 1972).

If this one comes down to which team is able to stop the passing attack of the other side, San Diego seems to have the advantage. Since the start of the 2010 season, the Patriots are allowing an NFL-worst 266.2 passing yards per game (despite a 15-2 record during that span), while the Chargers have allowed an NFL-low 169 yards passing per game.

Much has been made about how New England's secondary will hold up against the high-octane Chargers. Patriots defensive backs suggested this week that they are eager for the challenge.

On the other side of the ball, all eyes are on Chad Ochocinco, who drew ire of former Patriots, including ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi, when he tweeted in "awe" of New England's record-setting offense after Monday night's win in Miami. After a quiet preseason and a rough Week 1, Ochocinco is in the spotlight as he tries to carve out a role on this team.

With everyone focused on the two offenses, it might be important to keep an eye on special teams. The Chargers allowed four returns for touchdowns (three kickoffs, one punt), had four punts blocked and were the worst punt-coverage team in the league last season. Their struggles continued during last week's season opener against the Vikings, when they allowed a 103-yard kickoff return on the game's first play.

Ultimately, the teams know each other so well, it will be interesting to see how both sides reinvent themselves. One thing Belichick stressed, given the dearth of information both sides have, is that he doesn't want to see the Patriots burnt by something that hurt them in the past.

"It's like playing a division team -- you play them twice a year every year," Belichick said. "After a couple of years, you have a couple thousand plays, really, you're working with. ... You try to condense it all down, but you've seen some things and part of your preparation is just knowing the team. I'd say that's the way it is with San Diego. We've played them a lot. Not only our games, but then we've also seen them and studied them play other games over that same time, so you have a lot of information on them and it can really be too much, so you have to whittle it down and get to the important stuff.

"At the same time, by having that much information on them, you know them pretty well, you know their strengths, you know what you can't let happen. So you try to make sure that you don't get beat on the things that you know are going to be a problem."

Belichick then reflected on his days with the Giants, noting how familiar those games against their NFC East rivals became, with personnel seemingly never changing on both sides. The Patriots and Chargers have managed to develop a similar feel from 3,000 miles apart.

"[Those NFC East battles were] literally our team lining up against their team, year after year after year after year, with basically the same players," Belichick said. "You don't see that as much anymore, but these kind of games, the San Diegos and the Pittsburghs and the Indianapolises -- in addition to our division teams -- it feels like they're on the schedule every year."

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.