Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers made his debut as a starter this season after playing in just four games over the last two years. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean he'll be easy for the Patriots to rattle.
Just ask Patriots 11th year veteran defensive back Ray Mickens.
"I guess the whole story here is that he's a young and rookie quarterback," said Mickens, directing the statement at a crowd of reporters assembled at his locker on Wednesday. "Everybody's been asking questions about that, but he's really not. I don't know what people think, 'Oh he's young, he's this, he's that.' He's won 14 games this year. He's playing extremely well. He's very mature, regardless of how many years he's put in the league. I don't care if he put in 15. If you're not doing the job, you're not doing the job. He's getting the job done. He has a lot of weapons. So really, all the young quarterback questions, really there's no basis for them because he's doing very well."
While it remains to be seen whether he'll continue to do well when the Patriots defense takes the field at Qualcomm Stadium this weekend, Rivers completed 294-of-460 passes for 3,388 yards and 22 touchdowns this season, finishing a notch above Tom Brady as the league's eighth-best passer with a quarterback rating of 92.0.
"If you can go out there and do your job, experience doesn't matter," echoed cornerback Asante Samuel, reminding the media that Rivers isn't the only Chargers starter to throw touchdown passes this season.
Aside from scoring an NFL record 31 touchdowns this season (28 rushing, 3 receiving), running back and league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson has also chucked two touchdown passes this season.
"I mean we've just got to be ready," Samuel said Wednesday. "It's playoffs. You never know what can happen. Coach [Marty Schottenheimer] might get out there and throw the ball. You just prepare for everything."
Although it's not likely that the 63-year-old head coach will take any snaps against the Patriots this weekend, there's no telling what Tomlinson is capable of.
"He's a guy that they get the ball to in a lot of different ways and he's outstanding," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick on Wednesday. "He can do it all. He can run inside, run outside. Obviously he's tremendously talented in the open field and has a great nose for the goal line. Nobody finds the end zone better than he does. He's outstanding with the ball in his hands. When they hand it to him, there's no way to keep him from getting it. In the passing game, maybe you could do something and try to take him away as a pass receiver, but when they hand him the ball in the running game, you have to tackle him."
Tomlinson rushed for a league-leading 1,815 yards this season while still managing to be the Chargers second-leading receiver. He caught 56 passes for 508 yards, finishing the year with the most all-purpose yards in the AFC (2,323).
Compounding Tomlinson's threat as an offensive weapon is tight end Antonio Gates, who, like Tomlinson, possesses an impressive combination of strength and speed.
"He's very versatile," said Mickens, who may cover Gates as the Patriots nickel back. "You put a [defensive back] or somebody on him, he'll use his size. If you put a linebacker on him, he'll use his speed. It's a matchup problem with him."
Mickens compared finding an answer for Gates to finding an answer for a big, athletic guard on the basketball court.
"If you have a big guard, and you put a small guard on him, he'll post you up. If you put a big guard on him, he'll go bye you," he said. "It's a matchup problem that he's created, and he's done a great job. He has great hands and he knows how to use his size and his ability well."
As Rivers' favorite target, Gates snared 71 passes for 924 yards and nine touchdowns this season. Despite his 6-foot-4-inch, 260-pound frame, he averaged 13 yards per reception.
Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, who sacked Chad Pennington twice last week in the postseason opener against the Jets, described Tomlinson and Gates as "Big problems."
"Both of them are big time play-makers that could break a game open at any time," he said Wednesday. "That's not taking away from the other guys they have, but those are the big two guys that we have to focus on initially. Hopefully if we can get them contained, that will make our job easier to contain the rest of them."
"[The Chargers] have a lot of weapons," agreed Mickens. "Gates and Tomlinson are two of them, the two most powerful. But they're an all-around solid team. They've got what? Nine Pro Bowlers this year, so it doesn't stop with just those two guys. We're going to have to play our best game in order to win and we're going to have to prepare the best that we can possibly prepare to win this game."
"[Tomlinson] gets the ball in other down and distance situations besides first down, as does Gates get it on a lot of other situations besides third down," explained Belichick when asked about game planning for such a strong combination. "I think you defend players based on, down and distance is a part of it, field position could be a part of it and certainly formation. You need to know where they are and what they kind of do from those certain sets. A lot of times when you look at a formation, you can eliminate certain plays that they want to run, or certain routes that a receiver would run either by his location or where the other people are around him."
Aside from preparation, Samuel said it's important that the Patriots start this game strong.
"We like to start fast," he said. "We got to go out there and try to set the tone. It starts from the kickoff, to when the offense gets it, to when the defense gets it. If we want to win, we know we have to do that."
Coach Belichick agreed.
"You always want to try to go out there and establish your game plan, your tempo at the beginning of the game and get the game under control and play from even or ahead." He said "You always try to do that, but there's no question that San Diego is a great team. When they are ahead, they have an outstanding running game, play action passing game, they can rush the passer, 60-something sacks or whatever it is. When you're behind on them then, as we know from last year, it really just gets worse. They tee off on the quarterback. It's harder to throw. They can run the ball as well as any team in the league, so it's hard to get it away from them and they can chew up the clock and just play keep away. You don't want to be in that situation, there's no question."
The Patriots lost 41-17 in their last meeting with the Chargers, back in October of 2005.
Notes:A five-time Pro Bowler, former Patriots linebacker Andre Tippett was selected as one of 17 finalists for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the NFL announced Wednesday. The Hall of Fame's 40-member Selection Committee will meet in Miami on Feb. 3 to choose between three and six players from the finalist pool for induction as the Hall of Fame's class of 2007. … The Patriots held practice inside the Dana-Farber Field House Wednesday, with players wearing full pads. Rookie linebacker Pierre Woods wore a black jersey, indicating that he was the Practice Player of the Week leading up to the Jets game. … Tight end Daniel Graham said, "We'll be bumping heads all week," in the locker room, perhaps indicating that the Patriots will be practicing in full pads through Friday. He said he's looking forward to playing against Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman this weekend. "He's a physical linebacker. I'm a physical tight end, so it's going to be a lot of fun for us," he said. … During the portion of practice available to the media, safety Rodney Harrison and fullback Heath Evans were not spotted, but everyone else was accounted for. Evans is listed as "Questionable" on this week's injury report with a sore shin. Harrison is listed as "Out" this week again, which means he won't play against his former team in San Diego. His Patriots teammates voted him the 2006 Ed Block Courage Award Winner, the team announced Wednesday. The honor is bestowed annually upon the player who, according to his teammates, best exemplifies the principles of courage and sportsmanship while also serving as a source of inspiration. Harrison and award winners from the 31 other NFL teams will be honored at the 28th Annual Ed Block Courage Awards Banquet in Baltimore in March.