Defense: Target Tomlinson
Statistically speaking, Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson's numbers in Week 2 versus New England were an anomaly. He carried the ball 18 times for only 43 yards (a 2.4 average) and caught just four passes for 15 yards. More importantly, he failed to reach the end zone for the first time in his career against the Patriots.
Those numbers were his lowest totals versus New England since his rookie year (2001), when LT ran for 75 yards and a touchdown in an overtime loss to the Pats.
Normally, Tomlinson averages more than 100 yards rushing and two touchdowns. His average-per-carry against the Patriots is a punishing 5.5 yards and usually averages more than 10 yards per reception.
Tomlinson is certainly a prolific runner, one of the best the league has ever seen. But he is a talented receiver out of the backfield as well. What's more, he is a threat to throw the football on any play. The durable veteran has missed only one game in his pro career (a miraculous accomplishment for a player who touches the ball as often as Tomlinson) and has fumbled only 24 times in seven years.
Yet, such stellar numbers don't begin to explain how much of a leader his is on his team.
"When L.T. talks, you want to listen," inside linebacker and leading Chargers tackler Stephen Cooper said recently. "He's really the focal point of this team."
And despite bruising his knee against Indy last weekend, Tomlinson suited up for practice Thursday. All signs point to his being ready to go Sunday here in Foxborough, where he'll be the focal point not only of his team, but also of the Patriots defense.
Offense: Manhandle Merriman
In last year's playoff thriller between the Patriots and Chargers in San Diego, outside linebacker and sack specialist Shawne Merriman was virtually a no-show. He had two tackles and a sack, but spent more time on the San Diego bench than in the New England backfield.
This season, however, Merriman continued to ransack the rest of the league, terrorizing opposing offenses to the tune of 12.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Against New England in Week 2, he stepped it up a bit, registering five tackles and a pair of sacks of Tom Brady.
Despite missing four games last season to serve a suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, Merriman still led the league in sacks with 17. The year before, he was named the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the year.
Historically against the Patriots, however, he seems more human. And this Sunday, he'll once again be matched up against All-Pro left tackle Matt Light.
Coupled with fellow pass-rush specialist Shaun Phillips, Merriman provides one of the biggest defensive challenges New England will face this season. If the Pats O-line can continue to preventing him from having the type of impact he normally has on a game, Brady should have the kind of time he needs to pick apart San Diego's secondary.
Light missed Thursday's practice with the flu, while Merriman was limited due to an illness as well. It will be worth watching who bounced back better on Sunday.
Special Teams: Kick it up a notch
Last week against Jacksonville, Pats K Stephen Gostkowski missed his first field goal attempt in his playoff career. On the other sideline this weekend will be Chargers K Nate Kaeding, who's a woeful 3-for-7 on three-point attempts in his playoff career. If the game comes down to a field goal contest, the Pats should have a leg up with Gostkowski.
Intangibles: Fatigue Factor
Sure, it's going to be arctic cold here at Gillette Sunday – a clear advantage for the Patriots. But perhaps more significant is the fact that the Chargers have literally been battered and bruised in their first two playoff contests. It's unclear if QB Philip Rivers will start, and All-Pro TE Antonio Gates was visibly limited by his toe injury last weekend.
San Diego laid it all on the line in Indy. It will take a superhuman effort to do the same again Sunday against the Patriots. That could be the biggest factor the Chargers will have to overcome. Look for New England to win by 10-14 points as they advance to their fourth Super Bowl this decade.