Divisional Preview: New England Patriots vs. San Diego Chargers
By Chris Pokorny, PFCritics WriterJanuary 14, 2007
This Sunday, the final game of the Divisional Playoffs will take place when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots battle LaDainian Tomlinson and the San Diego Chargers. Although the Chargers were the best team in football this season, the Patriots are certainly the type of team that will not be walked over. For the Chargers, the key will be whether or not they can prevent Brady from getting a hot hand and putting points on the board early against Shawne Merriman and their talented defense. Meanwhile, the Patriots' gameplan will be all about stopping Tomlinson, something that's easier said than done when you consider what he has done this season.
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Tom Brady: 22 of 34 for 212 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 sack. 2 carries, 14 yards.
Note: Tom Brady is the ideal quarterback for the postseason, and he continued his reputation with an effective performance over the New York Jets last week. This is Brady's lowest quality group of receivers he has ever had, yet he was able to establish an effective connection with a guy they signed off the street in Jabar Gaffney. The Chargers have some very good blitzers on their defense and are solid at stopping the run, which could create a Patriots' gameplan where they spread the field and have Brady spread it around all day long.
Philip Rivers: 284 of 460 for 3388 yards, 22 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 2 fumbles, 27 sacks.
Note: The Chargers went with Philip Rivers at quarterback this season over Drew Brees, and it paid off. Granted, they wouldn't mind having Brees under center either, but Rivers was obviously adequate enough to lead his team to the best record in football. Before the season started, I had faith in Rivers because he had three things that make a quarterback comfortable: solid protection up front, a dynamic tight end, and the best running back in football. The only concern here would be if Rivers is a little too excited, because he has had a few games this season in which he starts off something like 1-of-10 throwing the football.
Note: A dynamic duo at running back is starting to become an important part of teams' offenses. We've seen it with the Jacksonville Jaguars, New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts, and the New England Patriots. Dillon is still the starting running back, and although he receives fewer carries, he certainly comes up critical down near the goal line and in short yardage situations. When Maroney gets the football, he seems to be able to maneuver around and move the chains, while Kevin Faulk is thrown in to create more of a threat as a receiver.
Note: The Chargers could establish a two-back system if they wanted to, but there's no need to: they've got Tomlinson. Time after time this season, Tomlinson would come up so huge in every aspect of the team's offensive approach. More times than not, he was at his best in the second half of games, sometimes punching in three scores within a few minutes it seemed. After the first quarter of the season, no one could stop Tomlinson, and that'll be the biggest task for the Patriots defense.
Note: Last week, Jabar Gaffney had a big day with several sideline passes. With how the Patriots system works this season though, Gaffney could have zero receptions this week, while a guy like Chad Jackson could step in and be the biggest contributor. If the Patriots do indeed spread the field with four and five receiver sets most of the game, Brady will take whatever the defense gives him, much like he did against the Minnesota Vikings earlier this season.
Antonio Gates: 71 catches, 924 yards, 9 touchdowns. Vincent Jackson: 27 catches, 453 yards, 6 touchdowns. Eric Parker: 48 catches, 659 yards. Keenan McCardell: 36 catches, 437 yards, 1 fumble.
Note: Most of the time, if you heard that both of a team's starting receivers had zero touchdowns on the season, you probably wouldn't expect them to be the top seed in the AFC. Eric Parker and Keenan McCardell were the starting receivers all season long, but always acted more so as possession receivers. The real threat in the red zone was obviously Tomlinson on the ground, but tight end Antonio Gates was just as important. Vincent Jackson doesn't have a lot of catches because he came on light in the season, but he's been a big playmaker using his height advantage on defensive backs.
Note: The Patriots defense was underrated during the regular season, and they could be underrated heading into this game as well. If a team wants to see how they can beat New England's defense though, they should take a look at what the Jets did last week. Although the Jets lost, Chad Pennington was very efficient throwing the football. Asante Samuel has had a career year for the Patriots this year, but with how often the Chargers don't throw to their starting receivers, he may not even see the ball come his way. The primary key will be finding a way to stop Tomlinson, something that almost sounds like an impossible task.
Note: The key for the Chargers defense is that they cannot afford to get frustrated. No matter how many playmakers the Patriots do not have in the receiving game, Tom Brady has the ability to frustrate the opposition. The Chargers will have to bring extensive pressure from Shawne Merriman to try and force Brady into a throw, and hope that his "low-key receivers" cannot make a play on the ball, possibly even resulting in a turnover. Brady won't hesitate to test the Chargers, especially if they don't have a response to it early on.
Ellis Hobbs: 27.0 yards per kick return. Laurence Maroney: 24.0 yards per kick returnStephen Gostkowski: 3-of-3 in field goals, with a long of 40 yards.
Note: With the exception of the Kansas City Chiefs, kickers have been money in the playoffs this season. The weather shouldn't be too bad in San Diego, and Gostkowski has made enough kicks consistently for Belichick to develop some faith in him.
Michael Turner: 26.5 yards per kick return. Eric Parker: 8.9 yards per punt return.
Nate Kaeding: 26-of-29 in field goals, with a long of 54 yards.
Note: Kaeding had a great season, but it won't matter if he can't overcome his playoff woes from two seasons ago. It's not possible to erase that memory from your head, and it'll be interesting to see if the Chargers decide to go for it on fourth-and-short during the game instead of taking what would seem to be "safe" points.
New England Patriots
San Diego Chargers
There's no need to brag about Brady's postseason accomplishments again, as I'm sure people outside of New England are sick of hearing about them. More so important that Brady's experience in the postseason is his ability to step his game up, despite the fact that he may not have guys like Deion Branch or David Givens around anymore. Brady is a leader on the team's offense, and if the Chargers are able to find a way to knock him down consistently, the Patriots would almost stand no chance in the game.
I'm a little concerned that if the Patriots choose to spread the field early that they won't be able to get back to the running game if they need to. Philosophies don't always work right away, and if the Chargers jump out to an early lead, it may be difficult to incorporate Dillon and Maroney into the gameplan. In spread sets, don't be surprised if Kevin Faulk is in shotgun with Brady often, as he is a person that could get a lot of receptions out of the backfield in this game.
Some people are questioning whether or not the Chargers will play "Marty-Ball". If I were the Patriots, I would love nothing more than for them to play it safe, because the Patriots are not a team that allows the opposition to slowly take the ball down the field. Rodney Harrison will miss this game again, and the safeties better be ready for any deep balls that Rivers throws over the middle towards the area of Vincent Jackson. Swarming Tomlinson sounds like a good idea, but if the Patriots aren't careful, Rivers will have Antonio Gates in man-to-man coverage off of playaction.
Brady is already established in the playoffs, and now it's time for Philip Rivers to show that his "learning on the sideline" for a few seasons has officially paid off. He has been relatively calm during the season, but certain defenses have been able to force him into some pretty bad first halves. One strategy that the Chargers may want to try and catch New England off guard with is throwing the ball deep to Keenan McCardell.
When it comes down to it, everyone knows that Tomlinson will be an integral part of the gameplan. He'll be a threat to take it the distance on every run, reception, or pass. I think that if the Chargers can get backup running back Michael Turner several carries during the second quarter with success, it'll be a big lift for the Chargers in the second half. That is when Tomlinson has been at his best, and keeping him at the top of his game will be a priority for the Chargers.
The biggest match-up for the Chargers will feature Shawne Merriman against Tom Brady. What Merriman has been able to do, even with his four-game suspension, is incredible. The Chargers have some solid players in their secondary and all of the other defensive positions, but they have shown that they are beatable. I don't mean "beatable" as in giving a game away, but high-powered, methodical offensive teams have not been completely shut down by any means.
AFC Divisional Prediction
Winner - San Diego Chargers
The Chargers don't know how to lose anymore, as they finished the season on a ten-game winning streak. However, it is worth noting that one of the Chargers' losses came against the Baltimore Ravens this season, which just so happened to be the week after the Chargers had their bye week. Still, the Chargers weren't able to establish Philip Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson up until that point. I can only hope that the Chargers do not play "Marty Ball" in this game, because that would be a tremendous mistake. Bill Belichick will have his team ready to go, and San Diego can't afford to sit back and play it safe. Final Score: Chargers 28, Patriots 24.