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NFL Preview - San Diego (1-0) at New England (1-0)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Leave it to New England Patriots wide receiver Chad Ochocinco to take the spotlight away from Tom Brady's masterpiece in last Monday's demolition of the Miami Dolphins.
The Patriots wide receiver, also a social network aristocrat and self-promoting entrepreneur, expressed his amazement of Brady's 517 passing yards following the team's 38-24 win over Miami via Twitter.
"Just waking up after a late arrival, I've never seen a machine operate like that n person, to see video game numbers put up n person was WOW," the post read.
Maybe Ochocinco shouldn't have been surprised by the performance of New England's powerful offense, since the Patriots have delivered plenty of prolific game during his 10 years in the league. He could be witnessing similar results on Sunday, when the Patriots celebrate their 2011 home opener with a matchup against Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers at Gillette Stadium.
Ochocinco was quickly chastised by former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi for his tweet, with the current NFL analyst responding by telling New England's new wideout to "stop tweeting and get in your playbook," among other things.
Though there's been speculation that Ochocinco is coming along slowly while learning a new system, but it didn't seem to have an effect on the Patriots in their Week 1 victory down in Miami. He was targeted just three times and finished with one catch for 14 yards in his New England debut, but Brady has several weapons to choose from and doesn't play favorites when executing the offense. He hit 10 different receivers on Monday, finishing with a career-high and franchise-best total through the air to go along with four touchdown passes and one interception.
Brady's remarkable effort was the fifth-best single-game passing performance in the history of the NFL. It also helped the reigning AFC East champions amass a team-record 622 total yards, 99 of which came on Brady's touchdown toss to Wes Welker in the fourth quarter.
"I only threw it 25 yards," Brady said of the play. "Wes did all the work."
New England won its eighth straight season opener, but hasn't started 2-0 since the 2008 season, when it finished 11-5 and missed out on a playoff berth. The team plays three of its first four games on the road, with visits to Buffalo and Oakland on tap after hosting the Chargers.
The Pats have also won nine straight regular-season games dating back to last November, and are targeting their 10th straight win in home openers.
San Diego hasn't started 2-0 since going 14-2 in 2006 and losing to the Patriots in the Divisional Round of the AFC Playoffs. Rivers is coming off his third straight 4,000-yard passing season and picked up where he left off by throwing for 335 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions in last Sunday's 24-17 home win over the Minnesota Vikings.
Rivers, who threw for a career-best 4,710 yards in 2010, got running back Mike Tolbert into the mix with a pair of touchdown passes, while the latter also added a rushing score on the afternoon.
The game started slow for the Chargers, who allowed Vikings receiver/return man Percy Harvin to take the opening kickoff 103 yards for a score. The Chargers trailed 17-7 at halftime before scoring 17 unanswered points.
"I would've loved not to have thrown any interceptions and we'd have loved not to have a kickoff run back and let it just be smooth and easy, but it's these kinds of wins that you really grow [as a team], because you have to fight through some adversity and do it together," Rivers said postgame.
The Chargers will put that growth to the test on Sunday, but will be entering this New England matchup with some swagger after holding the Vikings to 28 net yards passing. Minnesota quarterback Donovan McNabb was only 7-of-15 for 39 yards with a touchdown and an interception by linebacker Shaun Phillips.
San Diego has seen the film from New England's explosion on Monday night and will be preparing for a possible aerial assault without one of its top defenders, as end Luis Castillo limped off the field Sunday with a fractured tibia and is sidelined indefinitely.
As an insurance policy, the Chargers signed defensive lineman Ogemdi Nwagbuo to a one-year contract during the week. Nwagbuo was waived on Sept. 3 and has played 27 games for the Chargers the previous two seasons, recording 49 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks.
The news wasn't any better for San Diego's special teams, as accurate kicker Nate Kaeding was lost for the year with torn ligaments in his left knee. He suffered the injury during Harvin's kickoff return for a touchdown, with the team signing kicker Nick Novak to a two-year contract Tuesday as a replacement.
"I'm here for the rest of the season, and the goal is to win a championship," said Novak. "I'm going to take it one game at a time. My mantra has always been, 'Just keep working and good things will happen.' I really feel bad for Nate, but I'm here and I plan to do the best that I can for this team. I'm excited."
San Diego head coach Norv Turner may not share the same excitement if Sunday's game winds up being decided by special teams.
New England took a 19-14-2 lead in its all-time regular-season series with the Chargers after coming through with a hard-fought 23-20 decision in San Diego last October. The Patriots also topped the Bolts twice in Foxborough during their memorable 2007 campaign, backing up a 38-14 regular-season win with a 21-12 ousting in that year's AFC Championship Game. San Diego's most recent victory at Gillette Stadium occurred in 2005, a 41-17 rout during Week 4 of that season.
The Patriots and Chargers have met three times in the postseason, including New England's above-mentioned win in the 2007 AFC Championship. The Pats 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 teams occurred in 1963, when San Diego scored a 51-10 blowout of the then-Boston Patriots in the AFL Championship.
New England head coach Bill Belichick is 6-5 in his career against San Diego, including a 1-2 record while with the Cleveland Browns from 1991 through 1995. Turner is 2-4 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 1-4 head-to-head against Belichick all-time.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
Visiting teams haven't been able to head into Foxborough and steal a win in recent years, but the Chargers may have that mindset right now after an overall strong opening-week performance. Rivers (335 passing yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) has to feel somewhat confident after seeing that Dolphins oft-criticized quarterback Chad Henne was able to dice the Patriots' secondary for 416 yards and two touchdowns on Monday. Rivers can scorch the air with pinpoint passes and has plenty of weapons to throw to, with Tolbert (35 rushing yards, 1 TD) catching a team-high nine passes for 58 yards and two scores last Sunday. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson didn't make much of a difference in the opener, recording two receptions for 31 yards, but is certainly capable of breaking out this week. He and wideout Malcom Floyd were on the field for a full game last week for the first time in the regular season since Week 16 of the 2009 campaign. Tight end Antonio Gates (74 yards) hauled in eight passes against the Vikings and has been Rivers' most reliable pass-catcher the last few years. Gates needs five catches to pass Kellen Winslow for the second-most in team history as well. Turner said running back Ryan Mathews (45 rushing yards) had his best game as a pro in Week 1, as last year's first-round pick posted a career-high 73 receiving yards against Minnesota.
New England struggled in pass defense on Monday and won't be able to get away with a lax approach against Rivers. Cornerback Kyle Arrington (2 tackles) had the lone interception for the New England defense against the Dolphins, while second-year cover man Devin McCourty led the squad with 11 tackles. Safety Patrick Chung (9 tackles) ended second in stops and had one of four sacks on Henne as well. It was his first sack since recording two as a rookie in 2009. The Patriots' secondary is fairly young save for right cornerback Leigh Bodden (3 tackles), and it will be tested by Rivers and his collection of receivers. Miami totaled just 98 yards rushing on Monday against a veteran New England front four anchored by mammoth tackles Albert Haynesworth (2 tackles) and Vince Wilfork, who will make it hard for Tolbert or Mathews to find success inside, while defensive ends Shaun Ellis and Andre Carter hope to apply pressure around the corners. Carter had his first sack in a New England uniform on Monday night. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Jerod Mayo (5 tackles) will likely draw the assignment of covering gates in one of Sunday's key matchups to watch.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Brady (517 passing yards, 4 TD, 1 INT) was selected as the AFC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance in Miami. He became the 11th NFL quarterback to throw for 500 yards or more in a game and the first to reach that mark since Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger threw for 503 yards in 2009. Brady has won 28 straight regular-season games at home as well and owns 11 touchdown passes to no picks in his past five non-playoff starts in Foxborough. Under Belichick's offense, several hands will be on the ball, which Brady proved by hitting 10 different targets on Monday. Welker (160 yards, 2 TD) led the team with eight receptions, while tight ends Aaron Hernandez (7 receptions, 103 yards, 1 TD) and Rob Gronkowski (6 receptions, 86 yards, 1 TD) combined for 13 catches and could pose as problems for the Chargers if the defense is keying on New England's speedy and undersized wideouts. San Diego was able to handle Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and will know try to slow down Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who had just 34 yards on seven carries with the Pats doing all their damage through the air, but scored his team's first touchdown of the year. Center Dan Koppen went down with an ankle injury against Miami and is out indefinitely, while right tackle Sebastian Vollmer missed the opener because of a back injury. Normal right guard Dan Connolly moved to center in Koppen's absence and is expected to be there Sunday.
San Diego's defense was smacked in the face by the Vikings in the first half of last week's game, and can't afford to fall back against a talented New England offense on Sunday. McNabb was sacked twice, however, and right cornerback Antoine Cason (2 tackles) had three of the Chargers' four passes defensed. That kind of coverage will help against the likes of Welker, Deion Branch, running back Danny Woodhead and Ochocinco. Opposing quarterbacks tend to avoid throwing in left corner Quentin Jammer's area, and he recorded three tackles versus Minnesota. Safety Bob Sanders, a longtime Indianapolis Colts' defensive back, made his Chargers debut last week and was able to stay healthy while registering six tackles. Sanders is quite familiar with Brady and the New England offense from his days with Indianapolis, and may be able to share a few tidbits about the upcoming opponent with his teammates. Rookie Corey Liuget (2 tackles) and Vaughn Martin should see more time at end now that Castillo is out, while Nwagbuo will likely help out as well. Castillo's injury is still huge for a defense that held Peterson under 100 yards rushing (98) in the opener. Linebackers Phillips (3 tackles, 1 INT) Takeo Spikes (11 tackles) and Donald Butler (6 tackles) must cover the underneath routes and screens that are common in the New England offense.
KEYS TO THE GAME
What type of offensive approach will the Patriots take this week? They didn't do much to get Green-Ellis involved, with Woodhead led the team in rushing. Belichick was pleased with how the offense changed the momentum whenever Miami scored or threatened, but San Diego's pass defense should be a tougher task, so more running plays may be needed to throw the Chargers off. The loss of Koppen at center could alter that plan as well, however.
Rivers loves challenges (see Jay Cutler) and isn't afraid of big-game situations or getting into a war with anybody on the field. The Chargers need their leader in top form in arguably the best matchup of this week's games. If Rivers can get Jackson and Floyd involved more than last week, San Diego has a good shot at matching the Patriots point-for-point. A healthy dose of Matthews could help too.
The Patriots are aware that they need work in pass coverage and could be in for a long afternoon if Rivers is able to have enough time to carve up the defense. New England's young secondary, however, is fast and physical and good at forcing turnovers, and the group should be focused in the home opener after not performing at a high level on Monday.
The long cross-country flight for the Chargers had to be more relaxing after opening the 2011 campaign with a win at home, but their stomachs may have turned knowing that they'll be facing Brady and the high-powered Patriots along the Eastern seaboard. Gillette Stadium is not an easy place to play if you're the visiting team, and the Patriots will be working diligently this week to shore up what was a porous pass defense in the opener. Rivers should put up his usual strong numbers, while Brady will come back down to earth and ride an aggressive New England ground attack for a close win and the team's first 2-0 start since 2008.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 24, Chargers 17
09/15 18:48:50 ET