sunday_links.jpgby Scott Benson

It’s five o’clock in the morning, there’s eleven and a half hours before game time, we’ve got a full tank of gas, a half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.

Hit it.

Pretty interesting game yesterday. Nice ballgame from MacNair. We’re still laughing about Dan Dierdorf’s “He Built This City (On Throwing Low)” speech. Yeah, Steve McNair has really changed things in Baltimore, by the looks. But in what dimension does Peyton Manning throw up a quarterback rating of FORTY and get a breakthrough playoff win anyway? Of course, you’re going to get sick from all the Adam Vinatieri love that’s coming your way soon. Anyway, that was a fun game, I thought, and now, the stakes for today are set.

Let’s open the papers and see what’s up.

Over at the Globe, they’re throwing the kitchen sink at today’s game. We’ve got the usual crew plus a wave of reinforcements, and, of course, a gaggle of preening columnists. It feels like that, anyway, when Bob Ryan and Dan Shaughnessy choose sides for a contrived ‘Tastes Great, Less Filling’ debate. Ryan gets the bullish side, arguing for the been-there-done-that Pats, and I’m assuming Shank got the ‘Super Chargers!’ side, which probably feels more like a shot at the Pats than it does a testimonial for San Diego. I don’t know, I didn’t read it. And I cannot link what I did not read.

Jackie MacMullen gets the ‘can’t miss’ assignment; a feature on how freaking great Tom Brady is. Nice work again by Jackie, the best feature writer out there. And yes, I did breathe a sigh of relief when I got to the end and Brady hadn’t complained about his contract.

The beat guys set the stage with their morning stories, and Christopher L. Gaspar (I’m telling you, I’m about a week away from going with ‘Chris’) focuses on red zone play, and particularly the match up of the Chargers offense and Patriots defense, two of the best red zone units in the league. Gaspar drops a note in here that I didn’t know, though – the Chargers are 29th in red zone defense. Mike Reiss is along with more strength-on-strength matchups, and says in his Notebook that the Patriots will be trying to put 11 men on LaDainian Tomlinson everytime he carries the ball.

Jim McBride weighs in with his weekly scouting report, and Jim doesn’t feel good about the Pats this week. McBride also adds a notebook for the other playoff games, with some best wishes from the triumphant Colts, hoping to be home for the AFC Championship Game next week.

Even Michael Felger would like the Globe’s depth today – veterans John Powers (on the always-popular Corey Dillon), Frank Dell’Apa (fast starter Tully Banta-Cain) and Mark Blaudschun (ace kicker Nate Kaeding) all come off the sidebar bench to great effect.

Ron Borges closes with the weekly Football Notes, where he ponders the Hall of Fame candidacy of Patriots great Andre Tippett, and the possible future of Marty Schottenheimer. I like how often Tippett’s referenced the old Patriots since the announcement; it was awful good to see the name of old favorite Johnny Rembert the other day.

At the Herald, Michael Felger says in his Patriots Beat that its not about Tomlinson or Gates or Rivers; it’s about the Patriots offense. Okay, that’s not an unreasonable position, but let’s just say I’m not surprised to see Felger put the focus on the offense again. This time, though, he tosses a curveball; it’s not the wide receivers that have Mike concerned – now it’s the tackles. Then what was the four months of bitching about the receivers for, if the season was going to come down to the two offensive tackles? They should have traded Branch for Walter Jones or something.

Felger does look at the defense for a minute in his Game With a Game and decides that the Patriots have to use team coverage to combat the explosive Antonio Gates. He also worries about the placekicking, particularly about their balls being slippery. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve give you a few minutes to compose yourself.

Mike finishes up by checking inside the huddle for an old rant by Pete Carroll, who still wishes he had gotten the control Bill Belichick has. Personally, I view Carroll to be among the least culpable parties for the Patriots late 90’s collapse, but not if he keeps talking like this.

Albert Breer and John Tomase have both been strong in recent weeks, and it would have been nice to expand their roles today. Breer gets one shot, and he connects with a vote of confidence in Bill Belichick’s well-prepared Patriots. Tomase disabuses Pats fans who have been fond of citing Marshall Faulk/Tomlinson parallels when discussing this weekend’s game plan. Speaking of game plans, John also tells us what to look for.

Karen Guregian brings us back to draft day 2001 in her look at the great LT. Nick Canepa from the San Diego Union Tribune crows about the Chargers, and why the hell shouldn’t he? I thought the line about the Patriots having more experience than the Gabor Sisters was pretty goddam funny, if you were born in the Fifties. Later, there’s a Churchill reference.

At the ProJo, Shalise Manza Young takes a look back at how the valuable Artrell Hawkins came to the Patriots. Joe McDonald offers up his weekly game analysis, and sees things as pretty even. Jim Donaldson debunks what he claims is a Martyball myth.

If your thirst for Pats-Chargers remains unquenched, you know what to do. Do the Mash-Up! Naturally, you can follow the day’s events at Reiss’s Pieces, and as I mentioned, Breer has been crushing it on his blog the Point After. Both great resources for Pats fans all year, but especially at times like this.

Well, kids, here we go. Basically, after all this, after everything that has been done and said, the Patriots are today playing for the right to go to Indianapolis and the AFC Championship Game. Manning and Dungy and Polian and, yes, Adam’s Money. You cannot make this shit up. But first, the Patriots must close the deal with the star-studded team that was better than anyone in the dominant AFC over sixteen weeks. The storybook ending is anything but guaranteed. Either way, I’ll be back after the game.