By Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff

The Chargers, one of 2010’s most disappointing teams, got their season this year off on the right foot with a 24-17 win versus the Vikings opening weekend. While the win wasn’t particularly impressive, the fact that they held Minnesota to only 36 yards offense in the second half was pretty encouraging for San Diego. Last year, what was thought to be a potential Super Bowl season, melted away for the Bolts beneath a steady stream of poor execution, questionable coaching, injuries and horrendous special teams play. And at the end, they fell short of the playoffs. Now they’ll visit the Patriots this weekend in week 2 action in a matchup that has been quite spirited recently, but usually has the Patriots coming out on top.

The theme for the Chargers so far in 2011 is that this isn’t last year’s team. They’re different they say. And they’ve been willing to let anyone who’ll listen know that things have changed. Its a different squad. To hear them tell it, we’re gonna see a tougher, smarter, more disciplined Chargers team this year. One that fights thru adversity. They claim they have already faced adversity, pointing to five hot, boring days in Dallas when they had to ride buses to practice in sweltering heat. And to a bad start in a preseason game versus San Francisco. And finally, redemption in coming from behind in an exhibition game versus Arizona to win during the preseason. These are things the Chargers point to as adversity they’ve overcome that proves this is a different powder blue team this year than the soft, choking one from years past. “I think it was good we were able to have a few adverse situations (in the preseason)” said linebacker Shaun Phillips. “That’s what I think was most important and what were trying to get out of it. Being faced with adverse situations, make the most of it.”

I hate to be cynical, but long, hot bus rides and overcoming preseason deficits versus Arizona doesn’t sound very much like adversity to me. It sounds like, well, the same old soft Chargers if they think it is. But hey, if it works for them whatever. I guess we’ll find out. Lets take a look at some of the key players for the Chargers in this week’s game.

Phillip Rivers, #17, Quarterback: Rivers has to be considered one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. He has a tendency to pout and occasionally has extended stretches of non-production, but he is also capable of getting as hot as anyone and putting up a lot of points in a real hurry. Rivers was once a guy who didn’t seem all that respected by the Patriots. But in the 2007 season AFC Championship Game while the face of the Chargers at the time, LaDanian Tomlinson, sat out most of the game, Rivers played and fought hard with a torn ACL and a grudging respect was forged. This season, he has a wide variety of offensive weapons to work with and with the Patriots defense still a work in progress, another shoot out is a distinct possibility. Rivers isn’t very mobile and, while he’ll make his plays undoubtedly this week, if the Patriots can muster a pass rush to disrupt his rhythm it should cause just enough bad plays to almost guarantee the Patriots prolific offense the room they need to win the game.

Mike Tolbert, #35, Fullback: Tolbert comes off a career game in their opener last week in which he scored all three Chargers touchdowns, one rushing and two receiving. But, late in the game, he also got banged up injuring a knee . Tolbert was originally an undrafted free agent from Coastal Carolina University, hardly a hotbed of football talent. But he’s worked hard and become an effective inside runner, pass catcher and all around leader for the Chargers. The 247 lb. Tolbert can be a load to bring down and dangerous on short yardage. That may be where he is most a factor in this game as the Patriots generally otherwise handle this type of back well. He’s not going to run much out of spread sets with the Patriots in sub-defense, but in short yardage, that is where he excels and where the Patriots will need to focus on stopping Tolbert and stopping the chains from moving.

Antonio Gates, #85, Tight End: Gates is one of the better tight ends in all football and presents a very tough match up problem for the Patriots. He’s strong and physical and can out-position corners and safeties. Yet he’s fast and agile and can generally outrun linebackers. Many teams have struggled with Gates. His issue in recent years is nagging injuries which at times have slowed him significantly. He played hobbled last year with a foot injury versus the Patriots and was noticeably less effective though he still manages a touchdown. He’s been slowed a bit by a variety of injuries this year too, but is healthier than he was last year when he faced the Patriots and among the most needed to be accounted for players on the Chargers offense.

Vaughn Martin, #92, Defensive Tackle: Luis Castillo is the Chargers best defensive lineman and after getting hurt in the opener he’ll be out for this game and for several games thereafter. That means young player Martin will be getting extended playing time. Along with rookie first round pick Corey Liuget, who is also starting, it leaves the Chargers young and inexperienced up front. Martin was raised in Toronto, Canada and is the first underclassman ever drafted from a Canadian university. He hasn’t had much playing time in the NFL, but did show potential in preseason compiling two sacks. Given the youth and lack of depth at the Chargers d-line, you probably will see the Patriots try to run it a bit more this week than in the opener.

Nick Novak, Kicker: Nate Kaeding, the Chargers excellent regular kicker, was injured on the opening kickoff last week, a 103 yard touchdown return by Percy Harvin and he’ll miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. In place of Kaeding, the Chargers signed Nick Novak who was with the Jets in preseason. Novak hasn’t kicked in the NFL since 2008 when he was with Kansas City for 6 games. He’s only made 11 out of his last 20 field goals while in the NFL. He was with the UFL last season for the Florida Tuskers and did nail 15 of 18 there. He was 2-2 with the Jets in preseason, converting a 30 and 35 yarder. An interesting stat is in preseason with the Jets he only had 1 touchback in 7 kickoffs, so Patriots returners should get opportunities to make some plays this week.

Chargers Special Teams: The Chargers had historically bad special teams play last season and hoped in preseason to change things around. Their hopes had to be deflated and the nightmares of last year remembered when their opening kick was returned 103 for a touchdown last week. It couldn’t be the start new special teams coach Rich Bisacci hoped for. The remainder of last week’s game against Minnesota, the special teams issues didn’t show up again which has Charger fans hopeful. But given the horrific season they had last year and the start to the season this year, special teams is an area to watch and an area the Patriots could make significant hay in.

Chargers Fans: Chargers fans seem confident they can beat the Patriots. Despite facing New England in Foxborough for the Pats home opener, a victory seems all but assured for the men in powder blue. Lets take a look at recent postings by Chargers fans on the official Chargers website forum.

Someone name IlladelphiaBolt says “Pats D was worse than the Phins. Brady’s good, Henne blows. Henne had 100 less yards than Brady. I’m not worried.” Sound like Mr. Ill will fit in well intellectually in his move to the City of Brotherly Love.

BlueBloodedFan sees the banged up Chargers d-line as far superior to the Dolphins: “It was like the Phins DL were just happy to be in the presence of greatness, and wouldn’t think about messing up ‘ol Tom’s hair. Liuget, Garay, Barnes, Phillips, and company will not be so enamored. Tom will not have all day in the pocket like he did.” Okay Blue, Phillips is a good player but “Liuget, Garay, Barnes”????…sober up by Sunday would ya?

The Moekid sees no problems for the Bolts “the patriots are one-dimensional. we will smoke them” says he. And if the Patriots could only develop another dimension Moe, they’d get 1,200 yards in a game instead of a mere 600 right?

Fortunately, some Chargers fans do show some solid analysis skills. In this case, its old friend “marion butts” (or his imposter….either way) who says “It will be an entirely different game plan against us. I’m sure new England was trying to force henne to beat them. I don’t think the same strategy will be employed for rivers.” Good call four four.

Prediction: The Chargers have some weapons. They also have an excellent QB who can utilize them and one of the best offensive lines the Patriots will see all year. So they’ll likely put up some points and yards. I don’t see their defense slowing down the Patriots much, though. I’ll call it New England 41 San Diego 20.