3:00 PM ET, January 20, 2008
Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, MA
Though the AFC championship game matches the NFL's hottest teams of the past two months, the Patriots enter as huge favorites to knock off the banged-up Chargers and reach the Super Bowl for the fourth time in seven seasons.
"They've always kind of been that benchmark team that everybody looks to," San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson said, "and so it's just a great opportunity to get a chance to play against possibly the greatest team to ever play."
All the records achieved by Tom Brady, Randy Moss and their team during an undefeated regular season won't mean much if the Patriots don't get back to the Super Bowl, having won it all following the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons.
The regular season saw New England score an NFL-record 589 points while Brady set a league record with 50 touchdown passes and Moss broke one with 23 TD receptions, but that offense is facing a much improved San Diego defense. The Chargers have given up averages of 13.1 points and 285.1 yards over the last eight weeks -- all wins -- while forcing 26 turnovers and totaling 26 sacks.
"This defense will challenge us more than any defense we've faced all year," Brady said. "And I hope we play as well as we can, that's the only way I think we're gonna be able to advance through this round is to play our best football."
This is the round that ended the Patriots' run last season, blowing an 18-point lead in a 38-34 loss at Indianapolis, and many hoped to see a rematch this weekend but San Diego spoiled those plans with a 28-24 road win over the Colts last Sunday.
"Going out on the road and winning in Indy shows the kind of mental toughness they have," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "They've got a very talented team. I think everybody realizes that."
A day before the Chargers' latest win, New England ran its season record to 17-0 with a 31-20 victory over Jacksonville. A win Sunday will make the Patriots the first team in NFL history to post an 18-0 record, topping Miami's Super Bowl-winning 17-0 season from 1972.
San Diego was the team that took the league's best record into the playoffs last year at 14-2, only to lose 24-21 in the divisional round by allowing the visiting Patriots to score 10 points in the final 4:36.
The Chargers went into that game as five-point favorites, about a 20-point difference from the spread for this playoff rematch.
"Our whole season's at stake; so's theirs," Belichick said. "I don't think anything that's happened in the past has much bearing on it."
Belichick's team is favored by at least two touchdowns against a San Diego squad which has three of its most important players on offense all hampered by injuries.
The one of greatest concern to the Chargers (13-5) is the sprained knee of quarterback Philip Rivers, who is listed as questionable after he was knocked out of last week's win. The same happened to Tomlinson due to a knee injury, though he expects to play Sunday. Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates is still hampered by a dislocated big toe after playing through it last week, getting limited to two catches.
"We're getting ready to play the best team in the National Football League. We need to rally the troops and get everyone as healthy as we can be," Chargers running back Michael Turner said. "I've been saying it since August, we want to be at our best. I hope we haven't played our best game yet. That's what we're trying to get done this week."
San Diego had one of its worst games of the season in Week 2 at New England, losing 38-14 during a disappointing 1-3 start after being considered a Super Bowl favorite.
The Chargers recovered to win 10 of their final 12 regular-season games, making many believe this is a much different team than the one that was not competitive against the Patriots four months ago as they were outgained 407-201.
"If you look at our team, we are playing a whole lot better than we did in Week 2," said Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who led the NFL with 10 interceptions.
"This is Week 20 now and we're a whole different team. We've been undefeated since I think Week 12. It's a big thing for us just to keep it going."
Cromartie had one of San Diego's two key interceptions of Peyton Manning last week, and he wasn't even a starter back when these teams met on Sept. 16.
Brady threw three touchdown passes -- two to Moss -- in that game as he completed 25 of 31 passes. The league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year was even more accurate last week, going 26-of-28 for 262 yards with three more TDs despite Moss being held to one reception as he was constantly double- and triple-teamed.
Since that gameplan apparently did not work, Moss could be a bigger factor Sunday, especially if he wants to make up for unintentionally being the latest distraction in a Patriots season filled with them.
Moss broke his usual midweek silence to refute allegations that he committed battery against a woman, saying she made the claim to get money from him. A Florida radio station reported the woman filed for an order of protection against Moss and a temporary injunction was issued.
"It's very unfair to athletes if a person makes a false claim. You know, there's nothing that we can do," Moss said. "The only thing that we can do is either pay up or sit back and listen to what's being said or what's being written.
"For someone to make a false claim about me, I'm kind of furious."
This could just be another motivating factor for a Patriots team which seems to thrive when faced with controversy, having been propelled to a perfect regular season following the Week 1 Spygate scandal involving the New York Jets.
San Diego is 10-2 since acquiring the wideout from Miami, helping spread the field for Rivers and the Tomlinson-led rushing attack. Chambers, who caught one of Rivers' two TD passes last week, and Gates are considered much tougher to defend than any receivers the Patriots had to handle last week as they gave up 270 passing yards to Jacksonville.
Rivers was having a solid game last week before getting hurt, going 14-of-19 for 264 yards with three TDs and one interception, though it appears unlikely he will be at full strength Sunday even if he plays. San Diego does have a capable backup in Billy Volek, the former Tennessee Titans starter who rallied the Chargers to victory last week and ran for the winning touchdown.
Turner spelled Tomlinson admirably, rushing for 71 yards on 17 carries, and fellow running back Darren Sproles contributed a 56-yard touchdown reception. Tomlinson has rushed for just 70 yards on 28 carries in the playoffs, and he was held to 43 on 18 attempts at New England in Week 2.
"It's nothing serious, just a hyperextension," Tomlinson said. "I think they've got me listed as questionable, but I'm pretty sure I'll be able to play."
An effective running game could be a big key for San Diego, considering Rivers and most of the Chargers are not used to playing in cold weather. Though there is no snow in the Foxborough forecast for Sunday, the temperature could dip into the teens by game time.
San Diego has not played in below-freezing conditions this season.
"They'll handle the weather," Patriots fullback Heath Evans said. "I've said it before, sometimes we wish we could play the weather, because that's pretty easy to beat, you can get warm. It's playing a tough team like this that's going to create the issues."
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Both San Diego and New England come into this game streaking
In a back-and-forth battle with the defending Super Bowl champions Indianapolis on Sunday, the Chargers advanced to the AFC Championship Game versus New England, but it came with cost. QB Philip Rivers, RB LaDainian Tomlinson and TE Antonio Gates are all battling major injuries and San Diego is coming off an extremely physical football game. Meanwhile, the Patriots are on schedule to secure their spot in NFL lore after bludgeoning Jacksonville's defense Saturday. These teams met in Week 2 and New England won handily, but the Chargers are a different team now and playing with tremendous confidence. The Chargers are on an eight-game winning streak, averaging 28.5 points per game over that stretch. However, the Patriots have a pretty impressive streak of their own, going 7-0 against playoff teams this year and averaging nearly 37.8 points per game against teams that made the postseason.
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New England Patriots
|Avg Points Allowed||17.0||16.0|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||SD|
|Rush Yds Allowed||SD|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|New England leads 4-2|
|Sep 16, 2007||SD 14, @NE 38|
|Jan 14, 2007||SD 21, NE 24|
|Oct 2, 2005||SD 41, @NE 17|
|Sep 29, 2002||SD 21, NE 14|
|Oct 14, 2001||SD 26, @NE 29|