The Patriots just left Gillette Stadium on their way to San Diego, where they'll take on the Chargers in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Chargers and Patriots have met 32 times (New England leads the series 17-14-2), but this will only be their second postseason meeting. That game, played way back in 1963, resulted in a 51-10 Chargers victory. Here are five things the Patriots will need to do in order to knock the 14-2 Chargers out of the playoffs and earn a chance to fight for the distinction of being the AFC's top dog:
Grab an early lead
Asked this week about the Patriots scoring first against the Jets last Sunday, coach Bill Belichick said, "Believe it or not, that's what we usually try to do. I've never stood up in front of the team and said, 'You know fellas, if we're down by 14 don't worry about it, we still have a good game plan at that point,' and there's times when you have to play in that situation, but you always want to try to play from ahead."
Putting points on the board before the Chargers get a chance to pull ahead could be crucial in this game, because San Diego can drain the clock and sustain drives simply by handing the ball to LaDainian Tomlinson. "If we want to win, we know we have to [start fast]," said cornerbackAsante Samuel this week. If the Patriots want to stop first-year starter Philip Rivers and his offense, they'll need to keep him passing and be opportunistic with his mistakes. Letting the Chargers get a big lead will make that much more difficult. Coach Belichick is sure to have some defensive schemes set up to confuse the young quarterback, but that won't matter if all he's doing is taking snaps and handing it off.
Tomlinson was also asked about starting fast this week. "Well, that's always good, but we haven't gotten off to a fast start every game," he said. " Obviously we've had to battle back some, so it's important, but I don't think it's the most important thing."
Facing Tomlinson means facing the Most Valuable Player in the NFL this season. That's no small task. CornerbackEllis Hobbs said this week that, like Michael Jordan, you can only hope to contain Tomlinson, which was pretty much spot-on. The Ravens held LT to 3.8 yards per carry back in October, and that's exactly what the Patriots will be looking to do in this game. He's just too versatile. Ultimately, he can't be shut down, but when he gets into the open field, he's gone. It's best to limit his production, and with the Patriots three big men: Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour and Ty Warren holding it down up front, that isn't an impossibility for these Patriots.
Keep chipping away
Coach Belichick said this week that the Chargers defense is great at getting teams into third-and-long situations so they can attack the quarterback. Chipping away and avoiding those situations could be crucial this week. The Patriots will need to take what they can get and protect the football against the Chargers powerful front seven. The Chargers love making teams one-dimensional, and the Patriots offense has worked hard this season to build a passing game. Running backs Laurence Maroney, Corey Dillon andKevin Faulk should be as reliable in this game as they have in recent weeks, and if the Chargers are bringing the heat, look for that killer screen play Tom Brady has made work so well this season. Taking to the air too much could mean leaving Brady to the wolves, linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips, but the Patriots passing game is where Brady can work his magic. Last week, he took advantage of a defensive mismatch by hitting wideout Jabar Gaffney eight times for 104 yards. This Chargers team hasn't been beaten in 10 weeks, nor have they lost at home this season, so the Pats may need some big plays and mismatches in this game, but sustaining drives and staying on the field will be crucial.
Play tough red zone defenseThe Patriots have showcased their bend-but-don't-break defense this season, making it tough for teams to finish drives in the red zone. They'll need to continue that this week with the large and athletic Antonio Gates being Rivers' favorite receiving target.
"Any time the (opposing) offense gets the ball down there, like what happened last week where they recovered a fumble, well they're already in field goal range. So, defensively, to be able to hold them to a field goal there it's like a three-and-out. It's almost as good as you can do, other than turning the ball over," said Belichick this week. The Patriots did a good job of holding the Jets to field goals last week when they could have given up touchdowns. Artrell Hawkins said Friday that he doesn't like giving up any points, but sometimes you have to take the better of two evils.
"[The Chargers are], by far and away, the best team in the league in the red area," said Belichick on Friday. "They almost never get stopped down there. We're going to have our hands full with that one." Hopefully, the Pats defense can handle it.
Bring the swagger
The Patriots, of all things, are not weak-minded. These guys have been stewing in bulletin-board material all week. Whether they be comments from Merriman or ex-Charger Reche Caldwell, who's been sharing his former team's thoughts on the Patriots from the 2005 season, "We gotta show them who we are," said Gaffney. That's a feeling that has pervaded the Pats locker room.
The Patriots couldn't ask to be in a better role. Not too many players have had anything to say about being underdogs in this game, but it's a role the team has done well with in the past.
"A role is what you make it," said Seymour on Friday. "I think for this football team, we're just laying low. Let some guys run their mouth a little bit and we'll do our talking on Sunday."
They'll need to play a tough, physical game in order to beat the Chargers, but it seems they're up to the challenge.
Notes:The Patriots held practice inside the Dana Farber Field House on Friday, with players wearing shorts/sweats, shells and helmets. The only player not seen on the field during the portion of practice available to the media was safety Rodney Harrison, who's been declared "Out" for this game. … In the locker room, safety Artrell Hawkins, cornerbackEllis Hobbs, wideout Reche Caldwell, defensive end Richard Seymour and nose tackle Vince Wilfork all drew crowds of reporters. Linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel were seen admiring the artwork on a pile of hand-made cards wishing the team success in the playoffs.