The Patriots take their 12-game winning streak and 3-0 record to the west coast this weekend to face the 3-0 San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium at 4:15 p.m. The team will leave Foxborough this afternoon to make the 2,550-mile trip, a slight variation from its usual Saturday traveling schedule.
The Chargers present a formidable challenge under first-year head coach Marty Schottenheimer, especially for Tom Brady and a Patriots offensive unit that is averaging 38.3 points a game. Although the Chargers have played some questionable competition, Cincinnati, Houston and Arizona, they do have the number one ranked defense in the NFL. San Diego is ranked first in seven defensive categories, including yards per game (206.0), first downs allowed per game (11.7) and points allowed per game (8.0). They also lead the league in sacks with 16.
"San Diego is a good defensive team," Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "They've got real good ends, good inside people, and a good group of linebackers of course headed by [Junior] Seau. They've been strong and they are playing well now. They're turning the ball over, people aren't converting third downs against them and they're not giving up touchdowns in the red zone. Any team that can produce that formula is going to play well on defense and they're going to win a bunch of games."
Belichick went on to say that the Chargers run a conventional defensive system, but that they simply do it well.
"They run a lot of four-man rush," Belichick said. "They play a lot of man-to-man coverage and their corners are good. I think they do a lot of things that we have all seen before, but they do it well."
For his part Brady, who leads the league in both pass attempts and completions, believes this is the best defense the Patriots have played this season.
"Yeah, no question," Brady said. "They are giving up like 206 yards in total defense. They've got seven turnovers. They've sacked the quarterback 16 times, so they're a pressure defense. They get a lot of pressure with the front four guys, which allows those corners to make some plays. It is going to be a test for us."
A key factor in the Chargers early success has been a proficiency in the red zone, an area that Schottenheimer prefers to call the "Gold Zone," on both offense and defense. On the offensive side of the ball first-year starting quarterback Drew Brees has led the team inside the 20 on 10 separate occasions, converting all 10 into scores. They have scored seven touchdowns and three field goals in the trips.
On defense the Chargers have held opponents to just three trips into the "Gold Zone" and allowed just a single field goal in three games. Along with the Baltimore Ravens, the two are the only teams yet to surrender a touchdown in the red zone this season.
Offensively San Diego is led by Brees and second-year running back LaDainian Tomlison and is the third-ranked rushing offense (163.3 yards per game) in the NFL. Brees has led a conservative attack completing 47-of-78 passes for 504 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Tomlinson has kicked off 2002 right where he left off after a rookie year that saw him rush for 1,236 yards. In three games he has rushed for 289 yards on 74 carries and has scored three touchdowns. Curtis Conway, who has totaled 17 catches for 244 yards and two touchdowns to date, leads the receiving corps.
One of the biggest keys to the Chargers early-season success has been the team's ability to take advantage of the turnovers that they force. San Diego has forced seven interceptions (five interceptions and two fumbles) and has scored touchdowns following six of them. While the Patriots rank second in the AFC with a plus-6 turnover ratio, the Chargers enter the game with a plus-5 mark. Whichever team can continue its success the turnover game and convert those into scores will have a leg up in the battle of undefeated teams.
With both teams listing eight players on the injury report heading into the weekend, the two head coaches might have to adjust their expected game plans as game time approaches. If the Patriots can overcome their injuries and play to the expectations they created for themselves in their two dominant wins to start the season, they should be able to beat the Chargers. But at 3-0 and playing extremely well on defense the Chargers are certainly not pushovers. It is always difficult to win on the road in the NFL and the Patriots are making their first West Coast trip in five years. They will have to show up Sunday afternoon focused and intent on solidifying their image as the team to beat in the NFL in 2002 if they want to return home from San Diego with their perfect record.
The Patriots have a 10-game winning streak against the Chargers dating back to 1970. It is the longest active streak of one team over anther in the NFL. … The Chargers have a 9-13 record against defending Super Bowl champions and have lost eight of their last nine in such games. … Schottenheimer has a 5-1 career record as a head coach versus the Patriots. … The San Diego defense has only allowed four 100-yard rushers in their last 70 games. … Chargers rookie linebacker Ben Leber leads the AFC with four sacks. … New England leads the all-time series with a 17-12-2 record. … The Chargers upgraded four players on the injury report on Friday. Safety Rogers Beckett (ankle), wide receiver Reche Caldwell (hamstring), safety Rodney Harrison (groin) and tackle Vaughn Parker were all changed from Questionable to Probable.