Friday October 10th, 2008

The calendar says it's Patriots-Chargers week, but of course this isn't the same game we had circled since the moment the NFL schedule came out in April. There's no Tom Brady for New England. There's no Shawne Merriman or even a healthy LaDainian Tomlinson for San Diego. And there's no first-place standing for either AFC perennial power. The Chargers are trailing the 4-1 Broncos in the AFC West, and the Patriots are chasing the surprising 4-1 Bills in the AFC East.

Combined, New England and San Diego are just 5-4 this far, which is just one loss shy of matching their defeat total for the entire 2007 regular season. So much has seemingly changed since they met in January's AFC Championship Game in Foxboro, when the Patriots out-lasted the injury-addled Chargers 21-12 to improve to 18-0 and punch their ill-fated ticket to Super Bowl XLII.

Yes, we've come to think of these two as bitter rivals in the past three years or so, but this mid-October Sunday-night showdown in San Diego isn't a game about their rivalry or their one-sided recent playoff history. It's more a game of survival for one, and positioning for the other, and because of it there's not the glamour or sizzle attached to this matchup that we've come to expect.

In mid-July, I called Chargers general manager A.J. Smith and wrote a story about San Diego's organization-wide obsession with beating New England, the nemesis that ended the past two Chargers seasons in the playoffs, and beat them a third time early in last year's regular season. Smith candidly admitted he used the Patriots as his measuring stick at nearly all times, and talked of making personnel moves the past two years that were inspired by San Diego's desire to match up better with New England.

But on Thursday, when I dialed Smith back, he acknowledged the early season developments in San Diego and New England have changed much of the tenor and the backdrop to this week's game. For the 2-3 Chargers, this week isn't about settling old scores or revenging past losses to the Patriots as much as it's about making sure they don't dig themselves into a deeper hole than the two-game division deficit they currently face.

"Right now, it's survival mode, you're right,'' Smith said. "We've got to stay close. We're struggling right now. Things aren't going well. But our focus is on making sure we're in the mix as we move forward. We're both behind division opponents. We're behind Denver and they're looking up at Buffalo at the moment.

"Merriman is gone. Brady is gone. But last year is gone and over with too. I understand why people have been pointing to this game. But it's a regular-season game. This is the 2008 version of the Chargers and the Patriots of 2008. Things aren't the same, and we've both had some changes. But they have a record of moving on despite the changes they make, and we do too.''

Smith is big on reminding anyone who asks that the NFL season is a "quarterly business.'' You break the season into quarters -- four games, eight games, 12 games -- and position yourself for that final four-game push into the playoffs. That means the Chargers are about to reach the midpoint of the second quarter, and a 3-3 record at that stage would be far superior to 2-4 and quite possibly three full games behind first-place Denver, which plays host to Jacksonville this week.

At 3-1, trailing first-place Buffalo by a half-game, New England is not in as dire a situation this week. A win would actually tie the Patriots for the division lead, because the Bills are enjoying their bye week. A loss and New England still remains over .500, and within striking distance of Buffalo. Interestingly, both the Chargers and Patriots can help each other's causes next week, when Denver plays at New England and San Diego visits Buffalo.

But for now, Smith sees this week's showdown with the Patriots as part of the big picture, not the San Diego statement game most of us anticipated before the season started. First and foremost, he's looking for improvement from the team many believed would quickly emerge as the AFC Super Bowl favorite in the wake of Brady's season-ending Week 1 knee injury.

"We haven't been playing well,'' Smith said of his Chargers, who lost their first two games of the season in the dying seconds of each contest, and then looked uninspired in falling 17-10 at Miami last week. "Are we disappointed? Yes, because we're not hitting on all cylinders. And even if we had won those first two games, I'd be telling you the same thing. At 4-1, the record would have given us more cushion to deal with things. But we don't have much cushion, and if we lose this game, we'll have even less for the rest of the season.''

The Chargers do at least have one thing going for them in regards to their sputtering start: They've been there and done that before. Last year they began 1-3, and were only a mediocre 5-5 after 10 games, but still wound up going 11-5 and winning the division by four games. That experience does count for something, Smith said.

"Does last year help? Yes, it does,'' Smith said. "I like the makeup of our football team. It has resolve. I do believe that. I like this coaching staff and how they talk to the team. When things are tough, you hang in there and do the best you can to keep moving forward. There're 11 games to go, and we're starting to get a little better with some of our injuries. You do what you've got to do and then take stock at eight games, and again at 12.

"Last year after 10 games we were still trying to get our act together. And then we hit a stretch were we built up our record and hit our stride. When it comes down to the last four games of the season, you just want to make sure you're in striking distance and you have your math right. If you can get into the tournament, then the second season starts and you take your best shot. You need to be playing well when the playoffs start.''

A loss to New England and things could get ugly in the short term for San Diego. Next week the Chargers travel back into the Eastern Time Zone, where the Bills await after getting a much-needed break this week, and then it's all kinds of time zones being crossed when San Diego makes the trek to London to play the Saints in Week 8. Now you can see why getting back to .500 this week is actually more important to the Chargers than proving they can stay on the field with the hated Patriots.

Though Smith didn't say it in so many words, my sense is that his goal is to see his team get to its Week 9 bye at 4-4, and then take its best shot in a second half that includes five home games, including four in a five-week span from Weeks 10-14. Looming way down the road, of course, is the hope that San Diego's Week 17 home game against Denver is the most meaningful game of all.

"Our motto is get to the postseason, any way we can get there,'' Smith said. "Scratch, claw, whatever. We know there are easy roads you can take. We've done the 12-win, the 14-win season and you get out in front and feel good about yourself the whole way in that kind of year. But then there are some rocky roads that some teams take. Last year's Giants finished second in their division, and won three home games all year. Three home games. But they fought to make sure they got into the tournament, and the rest is history.''

These Chargers haven't made any history yet themselves. But the good news is that even with a sub-.500 record heading into Week 6, they're not yet history. In San Diego, this week isn't all about the Patriots like we thought it would be. It's about survival.

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