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Sam Farmer / ON THE NFL

Chargers are at do or dive

October 12, 2008|Sam Farmer

SAN DIEGO -- The rematch is here.

But is the thrill gone?

What looked before the NFL season to be a circle-the-date shootout between 2007 AFC finalists -- the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers -- now bears a closer resemblance to a showdown of the shoulda-beens.

The Patriots, although they've lost only one game, have yet to prove they still belong among the league's elite teams. The Chargers, hobbled by injuries, are 2-3 and coming off a demoralizing loss at Miami, which beat New England a week earlier.

Even in its victories, San Diego has looked shaky and inconsistent.

"Make no mistake about it, this is a critical time for our football team," said running back LaDainian Tomlinson, whose Chargers play host to the Patriots tonight at Qualcomm Stadium. "These next [three games] before the bye are very critical for us. To me, this is going to determine what type of team we're going to be this year."

A.J. Smith, San Diego's general manager, thinks of the regular season in terms of four four-game quarters. He was disappointed with the 1-3 start but was encouraged about the chance to start fresh in the second quarter with a victory over the Dolphins. Then came an uninspired 17-10 loss.

"We went down there on a business trip, and we didn't conduct any business," Smith said. "They kicked our . . . and sent us home."

Then again, home isn't such a bad place for the Chargers. They have won seven consecutive nationally televised night games there.

"We're certainly glad they're coming to our place instead of having to go back out there," said quarterback Philip Rivers, who still hasn't entirely gotten over losing to the Patriots in last season's championship game.

San Diego hung tough in that game, trailing by only two at the start of the fourth quarter despite injuries hampering Rivers, Tomlinson and Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates. The Patriots eventually won, 21-12, collecting their third consecutive victory over the Chargers.

"Obviously, we have their game film from this year, but you always go back and watch how they played you in previous games," Rivers said. "And watching the AFC championship game is tough. Brings back a lot of thoughts about plays you wish you had made, and how you felt, all kind of different scenarios that were going on at the time."

Rivers started hot this season and still is second in the AFC with 11 touchdown passes. But he has struggled over the last two games, completing about half of his throws with two touchdowns, two interceptions and six sacks.

Some of his favorite targets are moving around gingerly these days.

Chris Chambers has a bum ankle, didn't practice this week, and is listed as doubtful for tonight's game; fellow receiver Vincent Jackson has a tweaked knee but did practice Friday.

It also doesn't help that Tomlinson, who has rushed for more than 1,400 yards in each of the last three seasons, is dealing with a toe injury that has limited his effectiveness.

He has 331 yards through five games and has been kept out of the end zone in three games this season -- already equaling last season's total of games without a touchdown.

But it's not as if the Chargers are gripped with panic. They seemed loose and relaxed in the locker room this week, joking, playing dominoes, doing just the type of things they would do in more successful times.

The mood might be more dour if the Chargers didn't have the experience of last season, when they overcame a 1-3 start to fall one victory shy of the Super Bowl. They know a slow start doesn't mean it's curtains for their season, nor do they see Denver's two-game lead in the AFC West as anything close to insurmountable.

"We've stepped up to the plate before," linebacker Matt Wilhelm said. "We really feel that with the team we're playing this week, Sunday Night Football and everybody's going to be watching . . . a win would propel us in a great direction."

And another loss? The Chargers would be off to their worst start since opening 1-5 in 2003, and would propel them closer to another place: irrelevance.

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

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