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Chargers Friday Six-Pack

Posted Sep 16, 2011

The Patriots and Chargers prepare to meet in a big early season AFC battle.

In terms of early season games, Sunday afternoon's matchup between Tom Brady's Patriots and Philip Rivers' Chargers at Gillette Stadium is pretty big. Both teams got off to a solid start with opening weekend wins in what each hopes will be a Super season. While it's a bit of a stretch to say this meeting will have playoff implications, you never know how things will shake out down the stretch. Clearly both teams are expected to be in the postseason, so this renewal of a pretty consistent non-division rivalry could be the first of two meetings this season. With two of the best quarterbacks and offenses in the game on the same field, there should be plenty of exciting action to keep fans excited as the sun sets in Foxborough. Until the footballs and fireworks start to fly, this Chargers edition Friday Six-Pack will get you properly prepared for the big game.

1. Cover story – Rivers and the Chargers like to pass. They have a lot of offensive weapons. Last week Chad Henne and the Dolphins threw the ball all over the field. Sounds to me like the Patriots secondary will be in the spotlight this Sunday afternoon with a little something to prove. Devin McCourty struggled in his Week 1 matchup with Brandon Marshall. It won't get too much easier down the field with Vincent Jackson, who was notably quiet in Week 1. Jackson's downfield counterpart Malcolm Floyd was also quiet against Minnesota. Both have had success against the Patriots in the past, as has Rivers, who according to NFLN has the highest passer rating against New England in the Belichick era. That's without even mentioning the way that Antonio Gates will challenge the middle of the field, including the unsettled safety spot next to Patrick Chung. The Patriots pass rush will obviously also have a say in defending San Diego's passing attack, but this game is going to put a lot of pressure on the back end of the Patriots new-look defense. Will they be up to the test after the opening night hiccup?

2. Balance Ben – New England's running backs were somewhat of an afterthought in the opener thanks to the success of the passing game in the no-huddle attack. Though both BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead averaged 4.9 yards a carry, the former only got seven carries in the hurry-up game plan. I would think the Patriots may employ a more traditional offense this week which may give Green-Ellis a chance to get more involved in the action early on. San Diego allowed the Vikings to put up 159 yards on the ground while averaging 6.1 yards a carry, although nearly a third of it came on a 46-yard Adrian Peterson run. The Chargers had the fourth-ranked run defense last fall. New England the 11th best rush offense. But as the theory goes, getting the rushing game going should help out the New England defense a bit by keeping Rivers off the field.

3. Middle men – The stars of New England's Week 1 victory on the receiving end of many of Brady's passes were second-year tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. It looks like the young dynamic duo could be the heart of the passing game moving forward. That makes for interesting matchups with the middle of opposing defenses, and how those units choose to treat the two big bodied pass catchers. Eric Weddle is a wily, versatile, instinctive player at safety. He moves all over the field and will see some of the tight ends. San Diego also has former Colt Bob Sanders in the backfield, always looking to throw his body around and make a big hit. There is no way Gronkowski and Hernandez are going to sneak up on opposing defenses. The more plays they make, the more attention they'll get from the defense on a weekly basis. The duo combined for seven catches for 64 yards and a touchdown a year ago against San Diego when the passing game bogged down a bit. How they produce this time around, especially against the middle of the Chargers defense, could go a long way toward deciding this game.

4. Special delivery – The Chargers have had a lot of trouble covering kicks over the last year, including a 103-yard Percy Harvin kickoff return touchdown in Week 1. Julian Edelman seems to get better every chance he gets in the return game. It also looks like big plays in the kicking game could be a common theme in the early going of this unique season. Put that all together and I'm looking for Edelman to put together a game changing return on either a punt or a kickoff against the Chargers. The flip side of that is that the Patriots thankfully no longer have to deal with dangerous Darren Sproles in a San Diego uniform as the dynamic player has moved on to the Saints. Could be Edelman's turn to make a name for himself, change a game and run down the field with his long, flowing locks dangling behind as he gallops into the end zone.

5. Avoid aggressive Chargers – Much like San Diego likes to hit big plays on offense, the Chargers defense also likes to get into the playmaking fun. That includes pressure on the quarterback from guys like Shaun Phillips, who had 11 sacks a year ago. Antoine Cason had a team-best four interceptions last year, although three other Chargers had interception returns for touchdowns. Weddle and Sanders are both aggressive types in the back end. Bring it all together and there is pressure on the offensive line, which will get Sebastian Vollmer back in the mix, to protect Brady. There will also be pressure for Brady and New England's other skill players to take care of the football. Turnovers can ruin any game. They are even more critical in a matchup between two seemingly pretty evenly matched teams like this. Avoiding the big negative play will be huge for the Patriots.

6. Crowd control to Major Tom – Former Patriots tight end Christian Fauria talked on ESPN this week about how Bill Belichick gives the players talking points early in the week and that those are then regurgitated in the locker room to the media. So my guess is that Brady's message to the fans to get rowdy and ready to be a factor in the game on Sunday came down from the top. There has been plenty of criticism for the Gillette Stadium crowd at various points over the years. The Patriots win at a record clip at home, but the home field advantage may not be related to the crowd. The Patriots would like that to change, starting on Sunday against the Chargers. In what could be an exciting, hard-fought, back-and-forth shootout, the crowd could help out a developing defense in its battle with a top-flight passing attack. The fans have been challenged to help their team out. So, are you guys up to the challenge?

Prediction:
Teams with continuity have the edge early in the season. Stability at quarterback, coach and in schemes can be huge. Both these teams have stability at the first two and have changed things up a bit on defense with a new coordinator in San Diego and a new scheme in New England. To me the game will come down to how the Patriots defense, especially in the back end, matches up against the Chargers passing attack. San Diego puts pressure on you through the air at all three levels. That's a big challenge for a defense that struggled somewhat in Miami last Monday night. I expect Brady to move the ball, make plays and put up some points. But I expect Rivers to do so with just a little more consistency against a Patriots defense that I now have some questions about in the early stages of this personnel and schematic transition. I also think the Chargers have been circling this game on the calendar for a while. It's a chance to establish themselves on the road, early in the season against an elite opponent and let the world know they are serious Super Bowl contenders while avoiding their usual early season struggles. Put it all together and I'm looking for an upset here as the New England defense just isn't up to the early season task of slowing Rivers and the Chargers. San Diego gets the 34-27 victory in this marquee matchup.

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