AFC Championship Preview: San Diego Chargers at New England Patriots

New England Patriots linebackeSr Tedy Bruschi (54) and Mike Vrabel (50) stretch before practice begins on the stadium's field at the NFL football team's facility in Foxborough, Mass., Friday afternoon, Jan. 18, 2008. The Patriots will play the San Diego Charges in the AFC Championship game at Foxborough Sunday afternoon.

In New England, you find the only team of the final four, that at the beginning of the year at least, you’d expect to be playing for a trip to Arizona. However, the team they meet is especially unexpected, considering the turmoil the Bolts faced after a sluggish 1-3 start, including a blowout in New England during Week 2. After a near mutiny of first-year coach Norv Turner, the Chargers rebounded to a 41-3 rout of division rival, Denver.

They continued to finish a quiet, yet impressive 11-5, concluding their regular season with a 6-game winning streak. After the first few weeks of the season, New England was the polar opposite to San Diego. With newcomers, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donte Stallworth, the Patriots have incorporated a offensive artillery that, has at least thus far, been utterly relentless in their pursuit of perfection. Marked with a cheating scandal in a Week 1 obliteration of their AFC East rivals, the New York Jets, the Patriots have demonstrated their merciless assault on opponents all season, propelling them to a record-breaking season. San Diego will be playing the role of David in a AFC Title Game that features an epic rivalry between good and evil.

Offense: San Diego, on paper, has a potent offense, capable of big plays and game control. However, with injuries to their starting quarterback, running back, and tight end, and a severe underachievement from their receiving corps, the Chargers will need to be perfect on all cylinders, but especially offense to defeat the monster in the New England Patriots. Phillip Rivers, who has been blasted for being inconsistent and outspoken this season, will need to contain accuracy and composure in the biggest game of his career. (That is, if he plays at all. He’s listed as doubtful.) LaDainian Tomlinson, who also left last week’s game with an injury, will help compose the next chapter in this novel of bad blood, as he meets Bill Belichick & Co. for the second time this year.

New England’s offense can certainly be argued as the best in the extensive and momentous history of the National Football League. Led by touchdown machines Tom Brady and Randy Moss, this unit set the NFL record for most touchdowns scored in a season. Add Wes Welker and Laurence Maroney into the equation, and you have a force virtually impossible to be stopped. In addition, the Patriot’s own one of the best offensive lines in football, giving an already great quarterback loads of time to wait for an open receiver.

Edge: New England Patriots

Bottom Line: The Patriots have too much talent for the Chargers to contain.

Defense: San Diego presents a 3-4 defense that can both pressure the quarterback and shutdown opposing wide receivers. Shawn Merriman has had a down year compared to lasts, but still remains a forcible threat to quarterbacks. The Chargers’ secondary has talent, but not enough to shut down the Patriot’s receiving core. Jammer and Cromartie have the ability to neutralize Moss, but that leaves Welker, Stallworth, and Watson as open threats against an otherwise weak secondary.

New England has an aging, yet effective defense led by Tedy Bruschi and Asante Samuel. Bruschi is the leader of an aging linebacker core that may be on one last ‘horrah’ for another Super Bowl. In the few games the Patriots almost lost (Philadelphia and Baltimore) their weak spot was the linebackers ability to adjust to play action and pick up tight ends or slot receivers. This could perhaps be San Diego’s only chance to defeat the Patriots. Meanwhile; however, Asante Samuel leads a secondary that has been known for big plays and even bigger hits, which will probably ultimately decide this game.

Edge: New England Patriots

Bottom Line: The Chargers might have more talent on defense, but as far as this game’s match-ups go, it’s the Patriots. The Chargers will have minimal answers for the Patriots, while New England can shut down a weak San Diego receiving unit.

Special Teams: San Diego, led by Drayton Florence and Darren Sproles, has the ability to break a game open with a big return. In the past, however, San Diego has been plagued by poor performance in the special teams, chiefly by kicker, Nate Kaeding. His infamous miss in overtime against the Jets a few years ago is reminiscent in San Diego, as he hasn’t improved his performance much as of late. Going against a Patriots offense who could easily put up 50 on any given Sunday, all possible points will be vital to a Charger chance. This means Kaeding cannot afford to miss, and with his playoff history and leg injury, that isn’t a promise.

In New England, Ellis Hobbs provides a game breaking ability on kick returns, however didn’t return them last week against Jacksonville. Wes Welker has the sure ability to make the first guy miss, but lacks the breakaway speed to bust one. Meanwhile, Stephen Gostkowski has quietly had an impressive season, mostly because he rarely has to kick a field goal with Tom Brady throwing up touchdown passes as often as Lindsay Lohan’s name comes up on talk shows.

Edge: Even.

Bottom Line: San Diego might hold a slight advantage over New England in special teams, barring a consistent performance from Kaeding, but it won’t be enough to beat New England.

Prediction: If San Diego wins, it’d be the upset of the century, especially considering the injuries San Diego has suffered. However, they beat a good Colts team without three of their playmakers, who all seem ready for New England, and an upset in the AFC isn’t out of the question. But it seems this year that for whatever plan an opponent has to beat them, the Patriots have an answer.

New England Patriots 41
San Diego Chargers 24

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