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NFL PLAYOFFS | CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS

Tests to weather

Winds will blow in AFC title game, but will they favor the Chargers or Patriots?

January 20, 2008|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The winds are expected to howl through Gillette Stadium today when the undefeated New England Patriots play host to San Diego with a trip to Super Bowl XLII at stake.

But are they the winds of change?

The Chargers, who salvaged their season after a 1-3 start and are riding an eight-game winning streak, are determined to show they're not the same team that was demolished at Foxborough, 38-14, in Week 2.

The Patriots, who last week matched the final 17-0 record of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, want to remind the football world that they are the quintessential door-slammers, a team that wins every game it's expected to win. Undoubtedly, the way they allowed victory to slip away at Indianapolis in last season's AFC championship game is fresh in the minds of New England's on-field leaders.

"I tell the young guys, 'Don't take anything for granted,' " said safety Rodney Harrison, who was sidelined because of an injury for that game at the RCA Dome, when the Colts set a conference championship record by overcoming an 18-point deficit to win. "Because at any point in time, it can be over with -- whether it's a season, whether it's a game, whether it's your career."

Those are words of wisdom for the Patriots today, because everything points to them overlooking the Chargers, who began the week as 15-point underdogs. Few prognosticators have given the Chargers much of a chance, even though San Diego is a vastly different team than it was when it couldn't seem to find its rhythm earlier this season.

"I think we got to know each other during that first month," said Coach Norv Turner, who had to endure chants of "Mar-ty, Mar-ty" from a home crowd that pined for the return of fired coach Marty Schottenheimer. "You get to know each other a lot better in times of adversity. It probably did help us as we went through the season. We've become a good football team, and we're certainly playing our best right now."

San Diego is coming off a stunning upset of the defending-champion Colts, one in which three offensive stars -- quarterback Philip Rivers, running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates -- were injured or playing hobbled.

The extent to which those players can contribute in this game, if at all, won't truly be known until after the noon kickoff. But San Diego has a capable collection of backups, headlined by quarterback Billy Volek, who delivered a strong performance after Rivers suffered a sprained knee at the end of the third quarter at Indianapolis.

"I understand my role on this team," Volek said. "If I do get the nod, I've got to go out there and make plays. We've got a lot of guys on this team who can go out there and make plays -- L.T., Chris Chambers, Vincent Jackson -- so it's not like I have to go out there and do anything special."

The Patriots are something special, there's no arguing that. But their opponents in the second half of the season have revealed some vulnerabilities that the Chargers will try to exploit. After beating teams by an average of 25.4 points in the first 10 games of the regular season, the Patriots' points differential slid to 10.2 in the last six games.

Likewise, there was a 10.4-point rise in the passer ratings of their opponents, and New England's turnover differential went from plus-13 in the first 10 games to plus-three in the last six.

Of course, as New England receiver Randy Moss reiterates each week, the only number that really counts is the zero on the right side of their win-loss record.

The Chargers can certainly respect that.

"You look at what they've done this year, they just have so many weapons," San Diego defensive tackle Luis Castillo said. "Whether it's Randy Moss or Wes Welker . . . then you look at Tom Brady. For him to have the abilities that he does and to be able to lead that offense the way he does . . . they've really dominated people."

So how do the Chargers derail another dominating performance, sidestep the embarrassment of a Week 2 encore?

"Probably the biggest thing is not making any big mistakes," said Shawne Merriman, a leader on a Chargers defense that led the league with a plus-24 turnover differential this season. "The margin for error in games like this, and playing this kind of team, is very small. They have guys all around the field who can play. . . . When you have to cover a guy, you have to cover him. When you get the chance to sack Brady, or make a play, you have to make it."

Last year, when the Patriots went to San Diego and stunned the 14-2 Chargers with a crowd-quieting upset in a divisional playoff game, some New England players celebrated on the midfield logo by mockingly doing Merriman's "lights-out" dance.

That triggered a war of words between the teams, one that spilled onto Internet chat boards and fueled insults between Chargers and Patriots fans. That bad blood only raises the emotional ante for today's game.

The Chargers seem to delight in the notion that most everyone is ruling them out.

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