January 18, 2008

SI.com's Don Banks had a veteran NFC insider assess the Chargers-Patriots matchup.

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What San Diego did last week was just amazing. Losing the people they lost in that game, there's no way they should have been able to beat the Colts. That kind of resiliency will help them this week at New England. The Chargers are playing with so much confidence, and when they got the lead last week at Indy, it looked like the Colts were the team that tightened up. That big hit that Marlon McCree laid on Reggie Wayne late in the game spoke volumes about where the Chargers are at right now. They're getting it done.

LaDainian Tomlinson is going to play, but if he's not 100 percent, the combination of Michael Turner and Darren Sproles kind of made up for his absence against the Colts. Turner is going to be one of the most highly sought after unrestricted free agents, so this is a good stage for him to step up and showcase himself. And that touchdown that Sproles scored was something special. Colts linebacker Gary Brackett had the angle on him, but Sproles hit the sideline and it was over. That play kind of stunned Indy.

San Diego not having Antonio Gates at full strength makes it very difficult, but Vincent Jackson really stepped up at receiver last week. He grew up in that game. He's always been a great talent, with size and athleticism, but to start making plays when they really needed him last week was very big. With Gates hurt, they need the same thing this week from both him and Chris Chambers. Those guys have to take up the slack. Chambers has really gotten comfortable in their offense and he's becoming a dependable presence for Phillip Rivers.

San Diego has to bring the heat against New England defensively. Jacksonville gave Tom Brady tons of time to throw, and you see how that turned out. The Chargers have to bring Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips off the edge and at least shorten the time window that Brady has to throw. Make him make quicker decisions, because if he sits back there, he'll pick them apart.

What I can't wait to see is how the Chargers' young and athletic secondary plays against those Patriots receivers. Antonio Cromartie is so impressive, and I think the Chargers safeties are physical enough to punish those receivers after they catch the ball. If San Diego can do the same job on Randy Moss that Jacksonville did, the game could hinge on whether New England's other receivers make plays against the Chargers defensive backs. It was big for them that Donte' Stallworth stepped up last week with some big catches. He and Wes Welker and Jabar Gaffney have to be weapons against a very athletic San Diego defensive backfield.

The guy who always seems to do something in big games like these is Patriots running back Kevin Faulk. He's the guy who always seems to slip out of the backfield and make a play in the passing game when the other guys are covered. He's got a very underrated role on that team. The Patriots may be able to keep the Chargers defense honest with Laurence Maroney and the run, but the game will be decided by whether San Diego disrupts Brady enough to make him inaccurate and force some mistakes.

I thought I'd see more out of Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel than I have of late. He's going to be in the free-agent market because the Patriots promised not to franchise him again, and I really expected to see him at his best as he was about to go into the market. But his play has kind of leveled out late in the season. He's not really making the big plays he has made in the past, and he's not locking guys down like we've seen him do in the past. Maybe it starts this week.

Nobody finds something to motivate themselves week in and week out like the Patriots do. You have to be motivated by playing in the AFC title game obviously, but New England just always picks up on something it can use to flip the script. Either it's what L.T. said earlier this year about the Patriots believing that if you're not cheating, you're not trying, or maybe it'll be all that stuff from last year's playoff game in San Diego. They'll find something and use it. That's going to make the Chargers' task even taller.

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