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NFL Preview - New England (4-1) at San Diego (2-4)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Score one for post-winter resilience.
Though an anticipated playoff run was cut short by their first-round home loss last January, the New England Patriots seem to have shaken off any lingering hangovers this fall.
Six weeks into a subsequent 2010 regular-season schedule, head coach Bill Belichick and his team are right back on their traditional winning track, having won four of five games while amassing an NFL-best average of 30.8 points per weekend.
And the predictable first reaction as the Patriots enter this Sunday's road game against the struggling San Diego Chargers? Ho hum.
Oh sure, would-be Justin Bieber look-alike Tom Brady is among the AFC leaders with 10 touchdown passes and has posted his usual sterling numbers in yardage (1,203), completion percentage (67.4) and quarterback rating (98.5), but it�s not without a twist. The three-time Super Bowl ring claimant has been surrounded by lesser -- or at least lesser-known -- lights for much of New England's rebound, including leading rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis (57 carries, 235 yards), leading receiver Wes Welker (33 catches, 270 yards) and emerging rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez (22 catches, 301 yards).
Gone to Minnesota is perennial headline-maker Randy Moss after a bye-week trade earlier this month, a deal that prompted the return of former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch five days later that ended an extended West Coast exile in Seattle for the wide receiver. Also absent is veteran third-down sparkplug back Kevin Faulk, shelved for the season with a knee injury in late September.
But in terms of results, only the names have changed.
Helped by Branch's nine catches for 98 yards and a touchdown in red, white and blue debut No. 2, the Patriots rallied from 10 points down for a 23-20 overtime defeat of the Baltimore Ravens last weekend -- toppling the very team that beat them at Gillette Stadium in the AFC Playoffs nine months ago.
And re-igniting the confidence that may have been lacking in recent days.
"We're finally creating an identity of the 2010 New England Patriots," said tight end Alge Crumpler, whose team trails the first-place New York Jets by just a half-game in the AFC East. "We believe in this locker room we can get it done any kind of way."
On the other side of Sunday's matchup, it seems precious little is getting done.
Also toppled from the 2009 playoffs in their home debut as a No. 1 seed, the San Diego Chargers are still trembling on wobbly legs all these months later, as the four-time defending AFC West champions have won just twice in their initial half-dozen games of this season.
The two wins have been impressive enough, yielding a combined 56-point differential against Jacksonville and Arizona in home dates during Weeks 2 and 4. But head coach Norv Turner's team chalked up yet another ulcer last week, falling into a 14-point halftime hole at St. Louis and seeing quarterback Philip Rivers take seven sacks as the Rams tripled their 2009 win total with a 20-17 triumph.
That intestinal scar came just seven days after another hair-puller, in the form of an eight-point loss at Oakland in which the Chargers outgained the Raiders, 506-279.
The losses dropped San Diego to 12-15 in September and October since Turner arrived in 2007, and leaves the Chargers 1 1/2 games back of first-place Kansas City in the West.
"When you come off a game like we had [Sunday], obviously it creates a lot of discussion, a lot of speculation, a lot of theories as to what's wrong with the football team," Turner said. "The problems we had in the game, I'm very confident we can fix because we've done them at a high level in the past. The guys who had the problems have done them at a high level in the past.
"Obviously we need to go do it. We've got a lot of work to do. Obviously we've dug ourselves a hole and we have a pretty demanding schedule coming up as we continue through this."
New England has a 18-14-2 lead in its all-time regular-season series against San Diego, but hasn't won a non-playoff game in San Diego since a 45-7 shellacking of the Chargers in 1996. The Patriots have lost two in a row at Qualcomm Stadium since, including a 30-10 setback during Week 6 of the 2008 campaign. New England did post a 38-14 conquest of the Bolts in Foxborough en route to a 16-0 regular-season record in 2007.
The Patriots and Chargers have met three times in the postseason, including New England's 21-12 home victory in the 2007 AFC Championship. New England also scored a 24-21 upset of top-seeded San Diego at Qualcomm Stadium in a 2006 AFC Divisional Playoff. The only other playoff meeting between the clubs occurred in 1963, when San Diego scored a 51-10 blowout of the then-Boston Patriots in the AFL Championship.
Belichick is 5-5 in his career against San Diego, including a 1-2 record while with the Cleveland Browns from 1991 through 1995. Turner is 2-3 lifetime against New England, including a road win for his Washington team in 1996 and a loss for his Raiders to open the 2005 campaign. Turner is 1-3 head-to-head against Belichick all-time.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Once again, Brady has shown he's able to do good things, regardless of locale. The sultan of supermodels has a 67.7 percent winning clip on the road as a starter and aims for his fourth straight victory against the Chargers. Largely due to his efforts, New England has won 18 of its past 20 games in October, and as mentioned previously, carries a league-high 30.8 points per game average through five contests this year. Though not yet a household name, Green-Ellis is aiming for a fourth straight game with a touchdown, while fellow anonymous contributor Danny Woodhead racked up a career-best 115 yards (63 rushing, 52 receiving) from scrimmage last week against the Ravens. Welker has burned San Diego for at least eight catches in his last two meetings, while returning teammate Branch had a career-best 13 catches against the Chargers in September of 2002, during his first stint with the Pats. Lastly, aforementioned rookie standout Hernandez (fourth round, 113th overall) has a 13.7 yards per catch average on 22 grabs.
For all their problems this season, the San Diego defense can hardly be held accountable on statistics. The Chargers are allowing both a league-low 255.2 total yards per game and 163.7 passing yards per game, thanks in large part to a pass rush that's generated 21 sacks through six games -- tied for second in the NFL. Linebacker Kevin Burnett aims for his fourth straight game with at least one quarterback takedown, though his robust total of five sacks already this season nonetheless trails linebacker and teammate Shaun Phillips, who shares the conference lead with six. In the backfield, cornerback Antoine Cason holds team supremacy with two interceptions. Speaking of picks, fellow corner Quentin Jammer had an interceptions in his last game against New England. The aforementioned Burnett leads all Chargers with 32 tackles (29 solo) through six games, with strong safety Steve Gregory second with 30 stops (25 solo). Gregory, however, is in the midst of a suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
The Chargers have been as good at home as Brady and company have been on the road. San Diego will vie for its third straight defeat of New England in Southern California, where the Chargers are 20-6 under Turner. Rivers is 28-6 in 34 career home starts, amassing 51 touchdowns against 21 interceptions for a 98.9 passer rating. A touchdown pass in this game will extend his streak to 20 straight games with at least one, the longest active streak in the league. Additionally, he already has 35 connections of 20-plus yards this season, also first in the league. The post-LaDainian Tomlinson backfield has seen Mike Tolbert go for five rushing touchdowns in his past five games, while rookie Ryan Mathews has battled injuries in gaining 5.1 yards per carry over 55 attempts. Among the old reliables, tight end Antonio Gates can make it three in a row with a touchdown against New England. On the outside, Malcom Floyd has become a premier threat at wide receiver, averaging 21.4 yards per catch on 24 receptions. Floyd is unlikely to play this week with a balky hamstring, however, while Gates is a question mark due to a injured toe.
If Belichick's team has an Achilles heel, it appears to be on defense. Opponents have racked up a generous 383 yards per week on New England, compared to the 354.2 the Pats' offense has produced. More than 100 of those surrendered yards (109.6, to be exact) have come on the ground, where teams are averaging a fraction more than four yards per attempt. Through the air, the Patriots have surrendered an equally troubling 273.4 yards per game on a 70.6 completion percentage. Were it not for the prolific offense, the allowed point totals of 24, 28, 30, 14 and 20 through five games might have resulted in more than just one loss. Within the AFC East, only winless Buffalo has given up more points. Linemen Gerard Warren and Mike Wright have two sacks each out of the team's composite total of 10, while safety Pat Chung and linebacker Rob Ninkovich each have two of New England's seven interceptions. Rookies Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Deaderick each recorded career sack No. 1 against Baltimore.
While Brady and his band of merry men are generally a no-brainer to start, the matchup with a No. 1 San Diego defense does present problems, so be warned. Hernandez may be a surer bet at tight end and Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski seems safe to play as well. For the Chargers, Rivers and Mathews are priorities against an iffy Patriots defense, and wide receiver Patrick Crayton could see time as the No. 1 passing option should Floyd not be available at full strength. Monitor Gates' health status through the week, but start the tight end if he's active. And don't forget about the San Diego defense.
Neither are in their usual first-place perches as the season reaches late October, but it'd still be hard to find many folks willing to abandon the idea of both the Patriots and Chargers making the playoffs. With that as a goal, the boys from San Diego surely have more to lose here -- a factor which could be the ultimate decider -- especially with San Diego on its home field and having a favorable offense versus defense matchup.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chargers 27, Patriots 24
10/21 19:12:18 ET