by Scott Benson, Greg Doyle, Tim Jordan and Bruce Allen

Well, for all their trials and tribulations over the last year, where do we find the New England Patriots but in the same place we left them last January. The divisional round of the AFC playoffs.

Wait, there actually is a difference between this year and last. You tell me how big it is. Last year, they faced the tournament’s second seed when they reached the second round. This year, in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, they’ll play the first seed.

Otherwise, without the hall of fame kicker, the two star receivers, and the sage playmaker, and with all their alleged blemishes, the 2006 Patriots have basically ended up right back where they started.

No comment. Just an observation.

For more observations, here’s the Row of Chairs themselves.

Last Sunday was one for the books. Any lingering thoughts?

Greg: I was impressed how Richard Seymour picked up his game. Its probably been Seymour’s least dominant season this year since he got to the NFL. Much of that can probably be attributed to lingering injuries. But when the playoffs came, he was ready and dominated last week. They’ll need that again this week.

Tim: A complete team victory with many contributors. It was just as the team preaches. A thing of beauty in that regard and, despite my aversion to “storylines”, Mangini’s presence playing against a division rival made this game much more memorable to me than last year’s Jaguars game. It is truly uncanny the way this team seems to play at another level at this time of year and watching them do it against a team built in their own image was very satisfying. Some players that made some big plays that haven’t received much attention this week for it: Troy Brown (2 catches, both on 3rd and long during drives that resulted in touchdowns), Ben Watson (a big first down of his own where the defender went low, but he still held the ball, as well as a huge pass interference on Hank Poteat at the goal line setting up the Graham TD), and Heath Evans (blocked two Jets interior lineman on Dillon’s first 11 yard TD run).

Bruce: I was just glad to move on from that matchup. It was uncomfortable watching some of the schemes and formations (or lack of formations) that the Patriots have utilized for years used against them. The AFC East is going to be a tougher place going forward. All that being said, there was no point during that game where I was very concerned that the Patriots would lose. Even when they briefly fell behind, I always thought they were going to come back just fine. It felt like they had control of the game.

Scott: Just that I’m getting carried away with the last eleven-plus minutes of that game. It was a seven point game at that point, with the Jets just having matched a field goal. That might not seem like a close game to you; to me, one fumble or tipped ball by the offense and it’s close enough. But the Patriots just shoved the ball down the Jets’ throats while ripping off huge chunks of clock time. They dominated. Then, on the Jets final gasp, they immediately intercept a pass and return it for another score. Knockout punch. They KILLED them, just like our posting pal Ironhead said they would. They made a close game look like a blowout, and in no way cheaply. I’ve got a wicked case of ‘the Patriots are going to win the Super Bowl’ as a result.

What was your reaction to Camera-Gate?

Tim: I wish you hadn’t asked. Like everyone else, I didn’t like it when it happened (it looked worse live than on Youtube, didn’t it?) and was happy when Belichick both personally and publicly apologized to Jim Davis. The rest is contrived media sound and fury. While we are on the handshake topic though, anyone with access to the OnDemand Patriots Video News on Comcast should check out their entry on the day after the Jets game. They show Mangini and Belichick’s post game handshake from the second regular season game and its pretty telling. Mangini is insufferable. This will be a fun and challenging division rival for years to come.

Bruce: Not smart by Belichick and he admitted as much and apologized to Jim Davis for it. That should be the end of it, but with the media the way it is, there’s been plenty of hand wringing and denunciations of Belichick in the press. It’s tiresome, really.

Scott: I watched it develop as, I admit, I was hanging in there to see what would happen between Belichick and Mangini. It’s the Inside Track in me. Anyway, I saw him push his way through there and I honestly didn’t think anything of it. I wrote a whole thing about the game and didn’t mention it at all – not for any reason other than it didn’t register with me as being something significant. The awkward hug, I noticed. Anyway, the coach was appropriately contrite and the photographer was gracious in accepting the apology. And everybody else got to tsk tsk to their heart’s content, secure in the knowledge their brief moments as an asshole will never, ever be televised, and thus, shall forever remain plausibly deniable.

Greg: That it was just too bad and tragic. I feel really bad. Because if Belichick was going to slug a media-type, its just awful and terrible it wasn’t one of the scribes like Buckley or Felger or Tomase or one of the other giant ass hats that cover this team.

Let’s close the books on last week and get started on this Sunday’s highly anticipated game with San Diego. Who wins the match-ups? We’ll start with the Chargers offense vs. the Patriots defense.

Bruce: In concept it’s very easy. LaDainian Tomlinson. Antonio Gates. The Patriots defense has to be able to slow those two down. Can they? I think they’ll do a decent job at this on Sunday, but the game really hinges on not giving up too many big plays. Those two are going to make some plays, but if the Patriots can keep them out of the end zone for the most part, they’ll be in this game.

Scott: The Patriots finished top ten across the major categories of run defense, particularly in fewest rushing attempts per game (fourth, with a 24.2 average), fewest yards allowed (fifth, with 94.2 per game), and yards per carry (seventh, with 3.9) But Tomlinson is one of those players who rises above all that. He’s probably the best player in the league at this point, and he can do everything. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if he was to produce 250 total yards between running and receiving (275 if he passes) and win the game by himself. This isn’t like going into Pittsburgh in 01 and trying to stop Jerome Bettis. As a result, I can’t give the Patriots anything even close to the edge here. They have to stone a guy that very few stone. No offense to Phillip Rivers, but if the game for some reason comes down to him, against the players and coaches of the Patriots defense, I’ll take New England 9.5 times out of 10. That, to me, sounds like the Patriots have to do more than slow down Tomlinson – they need to stop him. San Diego will have no reason to put it in Rivers’ hands otherwise.

Greg: A good matchup. San Diego has some very dangerous weapons. Well, actually, they have two very dangerous weapons LaDanian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates. If the Patriots can find a way to take those away to at least some degree, it’ll force San Diego to do things they don’t want to do. One way to take away Tomlinson is to build a large lead. I expect the Patriots to be very aggressive on offense themselves to try to do this. If they can do this and force San Diego into mostly a passing game in the second half, they can take away Gates and its ballgame.

Tim: LT – Gates. That’s the game. LT – Gates, and I wonder if it can be stopped. Regarding Tomlinson, I’ve heard the Faulk in 01 comparison, but the 01 Rams were a much different offense than this 06 Charger team. Not to mention the fact that LT had 276 more yards from scrimmage (2,147 vs. 2,423) this season than Faulk did in that record setting year in 01. Faulk was playing with the league MVP under center and that offense was one of the greatest in the annals of the NFL. Of course, Belichick had seen that team in week 7 that year too which helped immeasurably in development of the game plan for the Super Bowl. It’s a completely different situation. Nobody seems to mention Lorenzo Neal, probably the best blocking fullback in the NFL, when talking about LT’s MVP season. In fact, that entire offensive line (over 2,300 rushing yards this year) is the best the Patriots will face this year. Add to that the fact that the offense has given up the least amount of turnovers in the league and you’ve got the match-up that concerns me the most as a Patriots fan. If the Patriots defense plays this game like they’ve played most others this year then we should look for a ton of yards between the 20 yard lines and hope for more exemplary red zone play. If not, this is where the Patriots will lose this game.

Okay, how about the Patriots offense vs. the San Diego defense?

Scott: It’s all about sack totals, it seems to me. I keep hearing about this great defense with Jamal Williams and Merriman and Phillips, and they have had a very good year, but at least statistically, they don’t dress out as being a whole lot different than some of the defenses the Patriots have recently played. The one difference being the enormous sack total. Tom Brady’s playing pretty well, just when it counts the most, and I’m going to bet that has the answer for that more often than not. We’ve been talking – as we should – about how the Patriots will contend with an other-wordly force like Tomlinson; I suggest the San Diego defense has a similar problem themselves, with the best big-money player of this decade. Pats get the clear edge here for me.

Greg: The Patriots should be able to move the ball. Tom Brady has been on, the receivers have improved and they run the ball well. I am worried about the San Diego pass rush. They’ll have to use a combination of ways to slow that down…..designed roll outs, quick passes, screen, leaving tight ends and backs in to help and mix those different strategies up. It could keep San Diego off balance in how to attack and help control their pass rush. But the Patriots should be able to score at a decent clip.

Tim: This one looks pretty even on paper (coincidentally, the SD offense and NE defense are both 7th in the NFL), but I think it favors the Patriots. The Chargers are an explosive defensive team with playmakers at seemingly every position, but they have been in their share of shoot outs this year. The Patriots like to talk about their emphasis on situational football and you can see it on display with every offensive possession. Each drive in the Jets game (Kevin Faulk’s touchdown catch being my personal favorite) last week was a great example of how they attack a defense’s weaknesses and adjust to what they are seeing. The key again will be how the team performs in the red zone, but, at the same time, you wonder if the game plan will call for the offense to try and control the clock and keep San Diego’s offense off the field. It will be very interesting to see how they approach it.

Bruce: If the Patriots can keep Tom Brady upright, they’re going to be fine, I think. Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk might be the keys this week, as the Patriots might be able to use some draws and screens to combat the blitz that is certain to come. The Chargers don’t change much from week to week, so we know what we’re going to see. I think in terms of passing, the plan might be similar to the one used in the Jets game. Passing outside, and trying the deep one every so often, hoping to hit one this week.

How do the special teams stack up?

Greg: San Diego is good, but the Patriots are certainly capable of busting a return themselves with Maroney, Hobbs or Faulk. I’ll give a slight edge to San Diego, but if its any, its slight.

Tim: I’d be pretending if I tried to dissect the intricacies of the Chargers special teams units, but the Patriots special teams are playing better than they have all season in the last 5 games. It’s a testimony to Brad Seely with all the losses that that unit has had to deal with. Hobbs and Maroney both had very good days against the Jets, who are a very good special teams unit in their own right. We’ve seen it before, this game could easily come down to a few special teams plays depending on how well each defense plays.

Bruce: I haven’t seen the San Diego special teams enough to really comment, but the Patriots have shown improvement in recent weeks. They’ve done a pretty good job on returns, both ways, and the kicking game has been promising. Gostkowski did just fine in his first postseason action, even making a 40 yarder where the kick was pressured heavily. One of his kickoffs went through the end zone.

Scott: I think you have to go with the Chargers here, though the Patriots do outdo them in the return department. Which reminds me, there was Kevin Faulk and Troy Brown back there on punts last week – and not Chad Jackson – just as I suspected they would be. It was the right thing to do, of course, but I still want to see Jackson. But San Diego obviously kicks the ball great, and covers kicks just as well.

Lastly, how about the coaching match-up?

Tim: Schottenheimer has to be a pretty bright guy and a talented football mind. He’s in the top 5 in wins in NFL history and that doesn’t happen if you don’t know how to coach. He’s had some glaring playoff losses, most recently in 04, which raise some questions about his ability to lead when the lights are the brightest. However, the latter part of this season he’s given more control on the offensive side of the ball to his coordinator, Cam Cameron, and the team has responded well. Particularly Phillip Rivers, who leads the NFL in 4th quarter QB rating during that stretch. It makes one wonder how they’ll play this one. Will they try and alter their philosophy that made them the best offensive team in the NFL this year or will they keep doing what they have and dare the Patriots to beat them on the field? It normally wouldn’t even be a question, but with Marty’s 5-12 playoff record it seems like something that they may consider. It makes me wonder if a component to Belichick’s post season success is the excellence of the teams he’s faced. In other words, the offenses and defenses were so good that they were predictable. Anyway, I am sure everyone with rooting interest in NE feels very comfortable heading into Sunday. The Patriots are the smarter and more adaptable team thanks to their superior coaching match-up.

Bruce: This seems like a layup. We know the postseason stats for Belichick and Schottenheimer. While I don’t put a lot of stock into those numbers for THIS game, they do tell a story. Of course, Schottenheimer is also 7-1 lifetime against the Patriots. It seems that the Chargers just line up and play. They don’t change a whole lot from week to week. If they throw a change-up this week and mix things up, it will be quite a surprise and might mess them up just as much as it would shock the Patriots.

Scott: The answer to this one is in the record books, and it’s not close. Marty Schottenheimer sure is a good one for the NFL Films-ready inspirational pre-game speech, and he’s certainly been a successful head coach in the NFL for a long time. I mean, twelve post-season appearances. I’ve got to wonder, though, if he’s much for discipline and detail. The five player arrests since April speak for themselves. And we’re now learning that he’s got at least a few guys – on a young team that hasn’t done anything yet – that think of the playoffs as just a couple of regular season games the league tacked on to keep the Chargers busy until the Super Bowl. This all plays into my new favorite theory that the Chargers are a west coast version of the 01-04 Steelers, and may offer a hint – at least in part – as to why Schottenheimer’s teams have failed to win a playoff game eight times out of his twelve playoff appearances.

Greg: Obviously you have to give this one to Belichick. I am wary of assuming Marty Schottenheimer will never get hot in the playoffs. You heard a lot of similar things about Bill Cowher last year and there he was, raising the trophy at the end. Schottenheimer has won over 200 NFL games, so obviously isn’t the bumbling moron sometimes portrayed. He isn’t Belichick either. But one of these days he may just be the one raising the trophy in the face of all the knocks against him. Just hopefully not this year.

Let’s get to it then – let’s have the victor, and a final score.

Bruce: Dang. It’s late Thursday night, close to submission time for this piece and I still can’t get a handle on this game. Every time I think about how the Patriots have responded to these types of challenges in the past I remember that this isn’t the same team that beat up the Steelers in January of ’05 or the Colts in that year and the year before. This team has the potential to deliver that type of performance…I think…but when I think of the running of LaDainian Tomlinson, the pass rush of the Chargers defense and the threat of Antonio Gates catching the ball I’m given pause. I think the Patriots are going to play well and have nothing to be ashamed of, however I think Tomlinson is going to break one or two during the course of the game and that might be the difference. I fear that it might. I’m going with the Chargers, 30-20, but hope against hope that I am incredibly wrong.

Scott: This train is bound for glory. Patriots 27, Chargers 20.

Greg: Patriots 30-20.

Tim: 34-31, Good guys. It’s impossible to watch this team for any length of time and pick against them in this game.

What are your thoughts about the other AFC divisional playoff – the Colts and the Ravens in Baltimore?

Scott: I don’t know, seems kind of predictable to me. Colts on the road, hard hitting, aggressive defense……..maybe Peyton will surprise us this time. He didn’t last Sunday, and he’s really up against it this week. I’d bet that Brian Billick will have a more competitive game plan than Herman Edwards did, and the Colts defense will quickly get over the illusion that they’re somehow ‘coming together at the right time’ or something – they suck. I’d love to pick the upset here (come on – next Sunday in Indianapolis? Sweet!) but I think I’ll stick with the Ravens.

Greg: The Ravens are at home and a tougher team than the softy Colts, who’ll fold on the road with their pathetic defense imploding without the comfort of their home crowd behind them. Lets go Ravens 27-13. Manning should be good for at least another 3 picks.

Tim: I am inclined to go with the Ravens here, for two reasons: Dungy looks like the guy at the health club that enjoys naked time in the locker room more than anyone else and the fact that his voice always reminds me of the old guy with the crush on Chris Griffin in Family Guy. Brian Billick once shared the stage with Charles Nelson Reilly and Gene Rayburn, but please believe him when he tells you he doesn’t like attention. He’s also got a scary group of players on the defensive side of the ball. I think, pound for pound, the best group in the league. Indy continues their slow burn to mediocrity. Thanks, Bill Polian!

Bruce: I just don’t see how Indy can pull this one out. They did show me something last week against Larry Johnson and the Chiefs, but I think the Ravens are just too much for the Colts this week. The game is outdoors, out of their element, and until the Colts can beat someone other than the Broncos and Chiefs in the postseason, I can’t pick them.

Let’s close out with another round of Mediot…..of the Week!

Greg: Michael Felger, who once was an astute observer of the Patriots, being unable to find much to talk about except pathetic Belichick to the Giants rumors is my winner. Michael, what happened to you? Seriously? Take a look in the mirror. Its not that sports is the most important thing in the world, but really, you’re making an ass of yourself. Have some self-respect and cover the sports intelligently and live up to your promise to not be about “Manny pissing in the walll…..”

Tim: This is the best time of year as a Patriots fan. It’s when some of our favorite memories have been made while our collective hearts race and emotions soar. We try to balance the excitement of the last win with the anticipation of the next challenge, knowing that the next game could be the last of the season. We are captive and we are captivated. It is a unique escape provided by the drama and pageantry that is professional football. Here in New England, we have been particularly blessed, rewarded for our fervor with a team that plays with character, intelligence, pride, and, most of all, excellence. Win or lose this Sunday, it does not, it WILL not, get any better than this as Patriots fans. We are in the rare position to reasonably assume that the New England Patriots are perennial contenders in a league designed to prevent just that. It’s important that we remind ourselves of this to, if for no other reason, properly appreciate it. And no one is going to do this for us, especially the media covering this team.

Instead, we are going to get a full page spread on our sports page the day of the game reminding us that our best corner is likely leaving after this season with three week old quotes that aren’t noted as such. We are going to get guys who have seen their careers advance partially due to the success and exposure afforded to them by this team tell us how delusional we are not to recognize how little chance they have of winning against the latest NFL juggernaut. We are going to get tedious and transparent arguments as these same folks race to be the first guy to predict the team’s demise and make up statistics to support their flawed analysis without any repercussions. Most of all, we are going to get annoyed, frustrated, and agitated. Why? Because they aren’t following this team for the same reasons. They want you to notice them. They want you to remember their name. They want a reaction. They want to take our attention and use it to augment their W-2’s, or their profile, or their self-esteem. In some cases, all three.

This week I implore you not to give it to them. Let’s save ourselves the aggravation and keep our attention where it belongs; on the team.

Bruce: Aside from the usual suspects we had a new contestant this week as Globe metro columnist Brian McGrory decided to weigh in on cameragate. I must’ve missed McGrory’s similar column of outrage when colleague Ron Borges knocked down a fellow writer at a boxing match.

Scott: I thought Albert Breer had a terrific week with the Herald’s Point After blog. Incredible depth in really every post. And no snarky one-liners; his enthusiasm for the game and for the story showed through, and he delivered items of interest every time. Breer rose to the occasion this week. There’s nothing mediotic about that.