Breaking down Sunday's New England Patriots at San Diego Chargers game (8:15 p.m., Eastern, NBC) ...
1. This may not turn out to be the best game in Week 6, but it will be the most desperately played. We may see better games elsewhere. Carolina-Tampa jumps out at me, plus Jacksonville-Denver, Dallas-Arizona, Baltimore-Indianapolis and even Chicago-Atlanta. But few playoff-caliber teams collectively need a win as bad as the Patriots and Chargers do this week, and that makes New England-San Diego the Can't-Miss Game of the Week.
The Chargers' plight is obvious. A loss would slide them to 2-4 and perhaps even the third-place slot in the miserable AFC West. They would have Buffalo and New Orleans, two losable games, next; and their back stretch would include visits to Tampa and Pittsburgh, plus home games against Indy, Atlanta and Denver. Believe it, folks: The Chargers, arguably one of the Top Three most talented teams in the NFL, could be well on their way to 5-11.
The Patriots' pressure starts from within -- remember, 16 regular season wins last year; plus they play in a division that's suddenly talented top-to-bottom. With a loss, they could hypothetically fall into a three-way tie with the Jets and Dolphins for last place in the AFC North. Then, after home games against Denver and St. Louis (cake, right?) they start a brutal four-game stretch: Indianapolis followed by all three division opponents in a row.
2. These Patriots are slowly -- very slowly -- starting to resemble the Patriots of old. I attended the Patriots-Jets game in Week 2 and witnessed some of the most boring, unimaginative football I've ever seen. But after watching New England's effort in San Francisco two weeks later, I'm convinced that Bill Belichick is much closer to operating out of the same playbook he's used in the past.
Here's what I saw against San Francisco to suggest that: reverses to receivers Wes Welker and Randy Moss; three receiver screens plus three more to screen back extraordinaire Kevin Faulk (all of them well sold by quarterback Matt Cassel); a much more effective use of Welker on precision timing routes to spring larger gains; plenty of shotgun; and the chutzpah to pull off gimmick plays, like a direct-snap to Faulk on fourth-and-goal at the 1 yard line.
On top of that, Belichick has finally unleashed his quarterback. Well, sort of. Cassel looked deep on the third play of the game against San Francisco, but his line didn't provide the time he needed. Instead of connecting with Moss or Welker, who both appeared open in busted coverage, he got picked. Two series later, he found the time he needed from the shotgun and hit Moss on a Go route for an easy 67-yard touchdown.
Cassel never connected deep again on the afternoon, but that's not to say he didn't try. He threw an interception, took two more sacks and scrambled out of a fourth, all while eyeing the deep ball. The point is Cassel's trying -- or more precisely, Belichick is letting him try; and that should keep Moss happy for a while.
3. That said, this might not be Moss's week. Belichick is not going to throw something at San Diego just because it worked against the Bolts' inferior neighbors to the North. Instead, I expect something more similar to the ball control attack Miami used to beat San Diego 17-10 last week. In that game Chad Pennington (22 of 29; 228 yards, a touchdown) worked the Chargers over with underneath routes to Greg Camarillo and never went more than 25 yards. (CBS's Steve Tasker summed it up thusly: "Pennington makes the decision fast, delivers the ball fast, and Camarillo is ready and open fast.") The Fins pounded between the tackles with Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown. And they inserted a gutsy array of trick plays.
That attack served to avoid San Diego's relative strengths: a defensive line that will punish a picky quarterback (they have 13 sacks; tied for seventh in the NFL) and a ball-hawking secondary that can easily turn an errant deep ball into six the other way. Pennington never dawdled in the pocket. Instead, he found open receivers underneath, where Shawne Merriman used to lurk, and racked up yards on runs after the catch.
I think New England can replicate the feat on all three fronts: The Welker-Camarillo comparison is an easy one to make, beyond the obvious. (I expect Welker's biggest game of the year.) The Patriots have a less-talented but deeper stable of reliable backs than Miami; I think it will suffice. And Belichick has never been one to shy away from trick plays. Which brings me to...
4. Bet on this: You'll see some some variant of the Wildcat on Sunday. In Week 3, Miami absolutely shredded New England with the direct-snap/option formation. Ronnie Brown ran for four touchdowns and passed for another, predominantly out of the Wildcat.
Two weeks later the Dolphins went back to the same gimmick formation 10 times against the Chargers -- including several times on back-to-back plays -- and managed a shocking upset. The stats weren't quite as gaudy this time around, but the formation did yield gains of 8, 10 and 12, plus Brown's game-winning five-yard touchdown run.
So, now you've got two coaches who've seen firsthand how effective the Wildcat can be. And those two coaches are facing teams who've proven vulnerable against it. Why not, guys?
For Chargers coach Norv Turner the Wildcat would provide an easy solution to the eternal question, "How do I get the ball to LaDainian Tomlinson in the open field more often?" I'll elaborate in a moment, but those L.T. screens are getting a little predictable. Plus, the Wildcat is most effective with a back who can throw the ball. Who better than Tomlinson to do that? The guy has more attempts (11), completions (eight) and touchdowns (seven) than any current back. He's never thrown an interception. His passer rating, 154.4, is just plain silly. What's not to like about L.T. in the Wildcat, Norv?
As for New England, Belichick has played with the direct snap plenty in the past. He even ran it successfully against the 49ers. All he needs to do now is move Cassel out wide as a decoy.
5. Another safe bet: More screens than you can shake a stick at. And that's San Diego's biggest problem. In terms of predictability, the Chargers are on par with Season Five of HBO's Entourage. A typical series for the Chargers goes like this: First, Tomlinson or Darren Sproles on a dive. Teams have come to expect it and that duo is averaging just four yards on first downs. Facing second and long, they typically screen to Tomlinson. He had five against Miami and Philip Rivers failed to connect on another, plus Sproles received one. Failing a first here they're often resigned to chucking it downfield against a nickel defense. Same thing every week.
None of that is particularly atypical for any team, but the extent to which San Diego relies on Tomlinson to dig them out of deep holes on passes from the backfield is getting absurd. Understandable? Sure. The Chargers average nine yards per reception out of the backfield, more than every team except Cleveland. ... But it's absurd.
New England, on the other hand, needs to screen more often to Kevin Faulk, one of the all-time greats in the situation. Last week we saw it for the first time since Faulk was hurt in the third quarter of Super Bowl XLII (here's hoping the history books don't underplay his absence late in that game) and I assume we'll see even more of it this week against the Merriman-less Chargers.
Why fixate on the screens? Because it's critical to each of these teams, and it's a large part of what makes them so different. The Chargers run it predictably. The Patriots seem to spring it at just the right time. In a chess match game like this, the Patriots' clever attack should be the favorite.
Every week, we ask an NFL assistant with relevant game experience to provide an anonymous scouting report on our Game of the Week. Here's what two assistants from 2007 Chargers opponents had to say about game-planning Tomlinson, Rivers, Antonio Gates and the intermittently explosive Chargers offense:
"They're built pretty well in that they have answers to just about anything you do. If you want to gang up with eight-man fronts, they have a quarterback and they have a guy like Chris Chambers that can make those plays outside, and if you want to play cover two, they've got a guy like Gates that can get down the middle or they can run the ball with LaDainian. If you want to blitz, they've got a quarterback that's been around. He understands and he's smart; he can get rid of the ball quick and he's not going to take a whole lot of hits. They can exploit just about anything and it's not a one-trick pony."
• ON TOMLINSON: "LaDainian Tomlinson is a player that you still have to account for, but he doesn't have the same explosiveness he had in recent seasons, for whatever reason. He just isn't making the same reads, same cuts and grinding out the yards the way he did. That makes it easier to defend against their offense."
• ON RIVERS: "That guy has really come into his own. He can carry an offense on his own now. He's very tough; he will stand in there and take a hit so he can find his second and third receivers. He's accurate with his throws, reads coverages. You just can't fool him. He's tough. And his receivers are good across the board, especially with the emergence of Buster Davis. You can't key on any one receiver, and you had better have three really good corners or else Rivers and Turner will find your weakness."
• ON GATES: "He is the game-changer in that offense, and you have to limit his effectiveness or else he'll take over the game. He is a real beast on jump-throws and passes in the end zone because of his strength and leaping ability. You need to put a defender on him who has a nice blend of speed, strength and cover skills or else the Chargers will throw to him all day."
The Patriots defense will punish the Chargers if they fail to be inventive. I see Belichick leaving his script slightly more often -- just enough for the Pats to squeak out a 28-23 win.