A tough opponent comes to Foxboro in the San Diego Charges this Sunday. While many eyes may be focused on Boston and the Red Sox and Yankees playoff possibilities, its quite possible this match up could decide playoff spots or seedings as well somewhere down the road. I expect a good match up between two tough, physical teams that can both put points on the board and play effective defense.

San Diego on offense likes to run the ball with LaDanian Tomlinson, possibly the best running back in the NFL at the moment. Fast and elusive, he is also strong and tough and can run inside for the hard yards. He’ll be tough to stop as will San Diego running the ball. They do so behind a relatively young, unknown offensive line. Last season, San Diego elected to go with young, big, strong physical linemen who largely were unproven in the NFL. This decision partly led Eli Manning to beg out San Diego and eventually landed him with the Giants. Many of the so-called media “experts” pointed to this unknown, inexperienced line as one of the main reasons San Diego would be one among the worst teams in the NFL in 2004. To everyone but San Diego’s surprise, who believed in themselves all along, the Chargers decision helped mold the team into a tough, hard-working team that took them all the way to a 12-4 record and an AFC West division championship. They return all the major players up front this season.

Last year, the Charges started two rookies up front, center Nick Hardwick who played with a number of Patriots at Purdue, and right tackle Shane Olivea. Both played well beyond expectations and gained experience which is helping this year. The rest of the line features blue-collar types Mike Goff, Roman Oben and massive Toniu Fonoti. When they get in rhythm, giant holes are created and Tomlinson most certainly will gash the Patriots if they don’t set the tone from the outset, clog the running game up and not allow this group to get going. Add in one of the best blocking fullbacks in the league in Lorenzo Neal and its quite a task to try to stop the Charger running game.

And the Chargers will most certainly try to run the ball against the Patriots. In some ways, the Chargers on offense are one of the toughest matchups in the NFL for the Patriots. The Chargers coach, Marty Shottenheimer, is one of the most successful NFL coaches in league history during the regular season. The main knock on Shottenheimer is his teams have generally under performed in the playoffs in the past. But Shottenheimer is probably the one coach most uniquely suited to take on Bill Belichick in the NFL. Not because they are alike, but instead because they’re different. They are similar in the sense both preach tough, hard-nosed, physical football. But Belichick is also a schemer and a tactician, while that has never been Shottenheimer’s way. Shottenheimer is a coach who likes to pound the ball on offense and do so over and over when he senses the kill and a defense tiring. In their last match up way back in 2002, the Patriots jumped out to an early lead. But somewhere just before halftime, the Chargers cut the deficit by pounding Tomlinson at the Patriots. They continued to do so the rest of the game over and over and over again. And it worked. In the second half, the Patriot defense dragged and looked as worn down as I have ever seen under Belichick. And that is why Shottenheimer matches up with Belichick well. Because he is going to do what he likes to do regardless of what the Patriots throw at him and the Chargers. He’s not going to deviate from his philosophy regardless what looks the Patriots give. Schemes don’t bother a coach like Shottenheimer as much as other coaches. He is still going to try to pound the ball, he is still going to line up and play smash mouth, my guys are tougher than your guys football and beat you. In 2002, it worked.

When the Chargers do pass, they are not without weapons. Keenan McCardell is a quality receiver who started out in the league with Bill Belichick in Cleveland and is a true professional and solid weapon. Tight End Antonio Gates, while not much of a blocker, is a fast, speedy tight end with excellent hands who can get down the field and moves nearly as well as a wide receiver. He’ll be difficult to stop and is particularly dangerous near the end zone. Kassim Osgood is a tall receiver at 6’5″ who could present match up problems for the Patriots smaller corners near the end zone as well. San Diego is also an effective screen team as well and the Patriots will have to be alert for this.

Running the show is Drew Brees, another Purdue alum. A short quarterback with an average arm, he nevertheless has become an accurate play maker the past two years. He can move in the pocket, make the necessary throws and rarely turns it over. With the Patriots only having one interception this year, and that by linebacker Mike Vrabel, it will be extra difficult this week to get game changing interceptions with the careful Brees throwing the ball and the Patriots secondary in flux.

On Defense, San Diego, like the Patriots, plays a 3-4. They have one of the top run-stuffing nose tackles in the NFL in Jamal Williams, a truly underrated player and decent ends. Rookie Luis Castillo, whom the Patriots looked at prior to the draft, is also in the rotation and has been a positive contributor. Another rookie, top pick Shawne Merriman reminds one of a young Willie McGinest and it’ll be important with Matt Light out for the Patriots to have their eye on him in passing situations. If they don’t cover him up effectively, he could reek havoc in the Patriots backfield all day. Look for San Diego to try to exploit whomever the Patriots have at left tackle with Merriman and pass rushing linebacker Shaun Phillips.

The Chargers have a decent, but not spectacular, group of linebackers in Phillips, Ben Leber, Randall Godfrey and Steve Foley. Leber is a solid player and play maker. Foley, like Phillips, can get after the quarterback. Godfrey patrols the middle, but may be the weak link of this group. Look for the Pats to be effective running the ball off the center-guard gaps as I don’t see Godfrey handling either Steven Neal or Logan Mankins, the Patriots guards, effectively.

The secondary consists of high draft picks Quentin Jammer and Drayton Florence at corner. Both are talented but inconsistent. The Patriots should be able to exploit both regularly. Other corners, Sammy Davis and Jamar Fletcher are also vulnerable. The Patriots may spread the field to get at these corners, particularly Fletcher who they used to regularly torch when he played for the Dolphins between 2001 and 2003. Fletcher is prone to give up long completions and also commits pass inteference an inordinate amount of times on long passes. The Patriots came back to beat the Dolphins in 2002 largely because of a long inteference penalty by Fletcher. Expect the Patriots to try to beat him deep or draw the inteference penalty if they see him on the field. Troy Brown, Deion Branch, David Givens and even Bethel Johnson and Tom Brady throwing should torch this group as a whole all day long, so long as the make shift line can provide protection. The Chargers safeties are decent, but not playmakers. Normally, the Patriots should be able to exploit both, Terrence Kiel and journey man Bahwoh Jue with their tight ends, but they may need to use tight ends to help out the young linemen in pass protection quite a bit. I still expect them to pick and choose their spots with this match up, however, and make some plays with the tight ends.

The specialists for San Diego are inconsistent but talented. Both the kicker Nate Kaeding and punter Mike Scifres are young with very strong legs, but tend to blow one or two kicks a game each. Return man Darren Sproles is an explosive, 5’6″ inch sparkplug who can get up field in a hurry and needs to be contained. He may be a used as a weapon on offense as well. San Diego’s coverage teams are average, the Patriots may have some chances to make plays there as well. Patriots punt returner Tim Dwight certainly will be interested in making a point to his former team which cut him last off-season.

What I see from this match up overall is a Patriot offense which should be able to move the ball at will if they execute. They must avoid the turnovers that have plagued them so far. If they do that and have the ball enough, they should put up more than enough points to win the game. On defense, the match up is a bit tougher. They need to force San Diego into passing situations by stopping the run on early downs. That is easier said than done with Tomlinson running the ball and a Charger team willing to keep trying it even if it doesn’t work early on. If the Patriots can force San Diego into passing situations, or better yet, get a decent sized lead in the second half, San Diego will have to throw. This is not how San Diego likes to play, with most of their passing coming from play action when its not an obvious passing situation. The banged up Patriots secondary should be able to handle the San Diego passing game so long as it comes in obvious passing situations. If they let Tomlinson run off 5 or 6 yard runs every 1st down, or they allow it to remain a one score game in the 4th quarter, then the Patriots could be in trouble defensively. It’ll open up play action and will also allow San Diego to pound the ball late when the Patriots may be a bit tired. On the other hand, if the Patriots can force 3rd and 3 or more often times, that will play into the Patriots favor.

One way the schedule has turned a bit to the Patriots favor is with their secondary being so banged up, they did luck out defensively by drawing San Diego and Atlanta the next two weeks, both run-oriented teams. At least in terms of defending the pass. San Diego rarely, if ever, even goes 4 wide and only occasionally 3-wide. Atlanta next week is similar. That helps. Again, shutting down the run to some degree and getting a second half lead, preferably a two score lead, will be key for the Patriots.

On special teams, I see a solid advantage here for the Pats in both kickers and in the return game with potential for game breaking returns apparent for New England and that could help change the game in the Patriot’s favor. In the end, I see San Diego being able to move the ball, but the Patriots stiffening in the red zone. They’ll eventually outscore San Diego who’ll stall on drives more often than the Patriots. Final score Patriots 30 San Diego 20. Until next time.

Greg Doyle