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How to pull it off

With no disrespect to the NFC's Giants-Packers undercard, top billing this weekend goes to the AFC's main event, where the surprising challengers from San Diego try to knock out the NFL's undefeated heavyweight, the Patriots of New England.

The NFL has never seen an 18-0 team. To keep Bill Belichick and Co. from scaling that historical peak, here are five things the Chargers need to pull one of biggest upsets ever:

1. LaDainian Tomlinson must be a difference-maker: He's got his MVP trophy. He's got his records, accolades and Pro Bowl berths. He was briefly known earlier in his career as the league's best player on a bad team. But this is by far the biggest game of LT's seven-year NFL experience, and in the playoffs, great players further their legend by stepping up when the stakes are the highest. Tomlinson is the greatest back in the NFL this decade, and if the Chargers have a chance, this has to be his showcase game.

Yes, San Diego won last week at Indianapolis without LT playing a large role. The odds of duplicating that feat are astronomical. The Chargers are his team, and they need him at his devastating best, hyper-extended knee or not.

They need him to gash New England with big plays in the running game and as a receiver, and maybe even throw a touchdown if he has to. They need him to put the entire San Diego offense on his back and carry it for as long as necessary. Most importantly, they need him to channel all that passion and anger he felt last January when the Patriots knocked the Chargers out of the playoffs, and transform it into the payback from hell.

2. A surprising contribution from an unsung player: If Philip Rivers (knee) can't start at quarterback, or if he leaves the game prematurely, the Chargers aren't in bad hands with Billy Volek under center. The guy's no slouch. If A.J.Feeley and Kyle Boller can hum the ball against the Patriots defense the way they did late in the season, Volek could pose real trouble. In 2004, Volek started eight games for Tennessee, and his 918 yards passing in one particular two-game stretch made him just the second player in NFL history to top 900 yards in a two-week span (joining Phil Simms, 1985). Volek's 2,789 yards passing in his first 10 career starts led all NFL quarterbacks since 1970.

As one AFC personnel man told me this week: "If Volek has to play, he'll scramble around and make some throws for San Diego. He's a very good backup in this league, because he's a guy who can go in and carry you for two or three games. Rivers is a better quarterback, but it's not a huge drop-off. Volek has some moxie to him. He's the son of a football coach. He's extremely bright and he knows where to go with the football. He plays within his abilities, and he's a better athlete than people give him credit for.''

Watching Volek last week on the game-winning drive against Indy, I got the feeling he didn't know he wasn't supposed to be doing that to a Colts defense that had looked so superb all season. Rather than the high-strung Rivers, maybe he's just the guy to handle the suffocating atmosphere of Gillette Stadium in January.

3. Keep those turnovers coming: The Chargers led the NFL in takeaways with 48, picking off 30 passes and recovering 18 fumbles. They've added five more in their first two playoff games (three interceptions and two fumble recoveries), meaning they're averaging just less than three takeaways per game for the season. Given San Diego's injury situation, one way to balance the field Sunday would be if its defense could present its offense with a few short-field scoring opportunities.

But the next time New England gets sloppy with the football will be the first time New England gets sloppy with the football this season. The Patriots turned the ball over just 15 times this season, a franchise record and the fifth-lowest total in league history. New England lost a mere six fumbles this season and didn't have a fumble by a running back. Four of the team's six fumbles were by quarterback Tom Brady in strip-sack situations. One was by kickoff return man Ellis Hobbs, and one was on a muffed punt by Troy Brown (when the ball hit off his face mask).

That's a remarkable statistic, and if the turnover trend holds for New England, the Chargers' upset chances are greatly reduced. But if San Diego's defense can keep its ball-hawking ways going, especially if it prevents New England from scoring in the red zone as it did to the Colts last week, the Patriots could be beat.

4. Harrison and Seau play more like old Patriots rather than ex-Chargers: New England safety Rodney Harrison and inside linebacker JuniorSeau both made their NFL names in San Diego, playing nine and 13 years, respectively, for the Bolts. Both left sunny Southern California after the 2002 season, Harrison for the Patriots and Seau for the Dolphins.

My point is they've been around for quite a while now. Seau turns 39 Saturday, and Harrison is 35. And while they take excellent care of themselves and almost always play well from the neck up, at this point in the year they do show signs of wearing down. Harrison has been hurting the Patriots by drawing too many needless personal foul penalties in recent games, and Seau is often part of the problem when the interior of the Patriots defense struggles against physical opponents.

What if the two ex-Chargers are players that San Diego's offense hope to exploit? You have to figure that somebody who's still around in San Diego knows how they best can be had.

5. History to repeat itself: Do you know what happened the last time the Chargers ventured into Gillette Stadium with a historic Patriots winning streak on the line? They beat the two-time defending Super Bowl champions to a pulp, 41-17, in Week 4 of the 2005 regular season. New England entered that game having won a franchise-record 21 consecutive home games dating to Week 17 of 2002.

So what's a little 17-0 perfect season to deal with compared to that? And it's not like these Chargers don't remember that 2005 game. Tomlinson ran for 134 yards and two touchdowns, Antonio Gates caught six passes for 108 yards, and MartySchottenheimer's club rolled up 431 yards of offense and scored more points than anyone had against a New England defense in nearly seven years. San Diego scored the game's final 24 points and afterward even tried to take pity on the Patriots, who were playing through a host of injuries at that point.

I wouldn't be surprised if current Chargers coach Norv Turner trotted out that game tape this week, showing his underdog team the mighty Patriots can be beaten, even at home. Of course, that game was played in early October. New England hasn't ever lost a playoff game at Gillette, and its only postseason home loss in franchise history came 29 years ago. So there's that. Good luck, Chargers.

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