Head-to-head: Chargers at Patriots

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San Diego Chargers New England Patriots
Philip Rivers, in his second full season as a starter, passed for 3,152 yards and 21 touchdowns to lead the Chargers. Rivers became only the second quarterback in club history to pass for three touchdowns in a playoff game against the Colts, tying the club mark of Dan Fouts. Billy Volek attempted 10 passes this season, but led the Chargers on the winning touchdown drive over the Colts, culminating in his 1-yard touchdown plunge late in the fourth quarter. Volek replaced Rivers, who injured his right knee in the final play of the third quarter. Rivers' status is questionable.
NFL MVP Tom Brady just completed what may be the greatest season a quarterback has ever produced, throwing an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions. His 4,806 passing yards and 117.2 passer rating were also tops in the NFL, while his 68.9 completion percentage was a career high. Brady was nearly perfect against Jacksonville, completing 26-of-28 passes and three touchdowns. Despite the Patriots winning a number of games by landslide margins, backup Matt Cassel did not get many opportunities, throwing for 38 yards and one interception in seven pass attempts. Rookie Matt Gutierrez is the team's third-string QB.

Last year's MVP, LaDainian Tomlinson, won his second consecutive rushing title, becoming the first running back since Edgerrin James (1999-2000) to lead the league in rushing in back-to-back seasons. Tomlinson started the season slowly, but gained 602 yards in the month of December despite playing only six quarters in the final three games. Tomlinson left the game against the Colts with a knee bruise, but expects to play. Michael Turner backs up Tomlinson and will be an attractive free agent in the offseason, especially after he gained 71 yards on 17 attempts against the Colts. Darren Sproles rushed for 122 yards and two touchdowns in his only extended work against the Lions in Week 15. Sproles had a key 56-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter against Indianapolis. Fullback Andrew Pinnock has replaced injured starter Lorenzo Neal, who still hopes to return if the Chargers keep advancing in the playoffs.
Some consider second-year back Laurence Maroney an afterthought in New England's pass-happy offense, but his 306 yards and four touchdowns over the season's final three games say otherwise. Kevin Faulk's numbers are by no means mind-blowing, but the nine-year veteran continues to be a dangerous receiving threat out of the backfield and one of the more underrated players in this offense. FB Heath Evans is a powerful run blocker who recorded three touchdowns when he wasn't opening up holes. Kyle Eckel remains the team's fourth-string back. Before a season-ending injury in Week 6, Sammy Morris was averaging 4.5 yards per carry to go along with his three touchdowns.

The Chargers finally got the big-play receiver they have sought for years when they acquired Chris Chambers from the Dolphins. Chambers has started to hit his stride with Rivers, and finished the season with 66 receptions for 970 yards and four touchdowns. Vincent Jackson has become the Chargers' go-to guy in the postseason. Jackson had five receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown against the Titans. He followed that up with seven receptions for 93 yards and a touchdown against the Colts. The Chargers also have first-round pick Craig Davis and the versatile Legedu Naanee who can fill in at both the receiver and tight end position.
Randy Moss rewrote the record books in his first year with the Patriots, recording a league-high 1,493 receiving yards and an NFL-record 23 touchdowns. Moss' 98 receptions, combined with Wes Welker's 112 (tied for the league lead) were far and away the best numbers for any receiving duo in the NFL this season. Welker had nine receptions for 54 yards and a touchdown against the Jaguars. Donte' Stallworth provides a speedy and experienced option for Brady, with 46 receptions for 697 yards and three touchdowns. Jabar Gaffney was a late-season playmaker. Chad Jackson and Kelley Washington didn't make many receiving plays this season, but were valuable special teams members. And don't forget about Troy Brown. The 15-year Patriots veteran was activated off the PUP list in Week 13 and has a knack for making plays in the postseason.

Chargers tight end Antonio Gates has emerged as one of the top tight ends in the NFL, but his status for Sunday's game is uncertain after he suffered a toe injury in the Chargers' wild-card defeat of the Titans. Gates didn't start against the Colts, but was able to play in pain to record a pair of receptions. His presence is enough to open up space for Jackson and Chambers. Gates led the team with 75 receptions for 984 yards and nine touchdowns to earn his fourth consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl. Brandon Manumaleuna would have to play a larger role if Gates can't go and Naanee would come in when San Diego employs two tight-end sets.
Benjamin Watson got off to a fast start, recording five touchdowns in his first five games. He finished the season with 36 receptions, 389 yards and six touchdowns in 12 games. Watson had a pair of touchdowns last week and had a touchdown in the Patriots game against the Chargers in Week 2. Kyle Brady has been a valuable run blocker and was even on the receiving end of a pair of Brady-to-Brady touchdown passes. Linebacker Mike Vrabel has been known to line up at tight end in goal-line situations, making two touchdown receptions this season.

Tomlinson gives credit for his consecutive rushing titles to his offensive line. The anchor of the offensive line is center Nick Hardwick who missed four games with an ankle injury. The Chargers went 2-2 during that stretch, but have not lost since his return. Guard Kris Dielman will start in his first Pro Bowl. Rounding out the offensive line are tackles Marcus McNeill, Jeromey Clary and guard Mike Goff. The Chargers did not allow a sack in the team's first two playoff games.
Center Dan Koppen, guard Logan Mankins and tackle Matt Light comprise the left side of the Patriots' offensive line. All three are going to the Pro Bowl. Guard Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur round out a front five that allowed only 21 sacks. Seventh-year guard Russ Hochstein, tackle Ryan O'Callaghan and tackle Wesley Britt are all versatile and capable backups.

The strength of the Chargers defensive line is defensive tackle Jamal Williams, who has been slowed by an ankle injury. Brandon McKinney is his backup. The Chargers do expect him to be healthy for the playoffs. Defensive end Luis Castillo returned in Week 16 after suffering an ankle injury and has provided a spark. Jacques Cesaire filled in adequately in Castillo's absence. Fourth-year defensive end Igor Olshansky also has become a force on the defensive line.
At 6-2 and 325 pounds, DT Vince Wilfork is a dominant run-stuffer, leading the defensive line with 48 tackles. He is flanked by defensive ends Richard Seymour and Ty Warren, comprising one of the more powerful lines in all of football. DE Jarvis Green filled in on the right side before Seymour was activated off the PUP list in Week 8. With 39 tackles and 6½ sacks, Green continues to be a valuable member of the Patriots' defensive end rotation and could start on most teams. DE Mike Wright and DT Le Kevin Smith round out the reserves.

Pro Bowl-bound Shawne Merriman suffered a knee injury against the Titans in Week 14, but still recorded 12½ sacks on the season -- the third year he has had double-digit sack totals. Shaun Phillips is more than just the "other guy" starting in the opposite outside linebacker spot. The Chargers have grown under defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, who has turned his linebackers loose on opposing quarterbacks. Merriman did not have a sack against the Colts, but had a key quarterback pressure on fourth-and-goal with just over two minutes left that squelched a potential Colts scoring drive. Jyles Tucker is the backup behind Merriman, and finished his season with three sacks against the Raiders. Inside linebackers Stephen Cooper and Matt Wilhelm have been solid and are key in stopping the run. Cooper had 16 tackles against the Colts.
Next to trading for Moss, the signing of former Ravens LB Adalius Thomas was the biggest off-season acquisition for New England. While Thomas' numbers (78 tackles, 6½ sacks) may be down slightly from his days in Baltimore, his biggest contribution may have been beginning the season at ILB, allowing Mike Vrabel to move to the outside. Vrabel subsequently submitted the best season of his 11-year career, recording 77 tackles, five forced fumbles and a career-high 12½ sacks to earn his first Pro Bowl appearance. Before going down for the season in Week 12, OLB Rosevelt Colvin was having another fine season with 27 tackles, four sacks, three forced fumbles and one interception. With Colvin on IR, Thomas was moved back to his more familiar outside spot and 18-year veteran and team captain Junior Seau became the starter next to Tedy Bruschi (team-leading 92 tackles) on the inside.

The Chargers led the NFL with 30 interceptions. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie started the season as the No. 5 cornerback, but set a club record and led the league with 10 interceptions to earn his first trip to the Pro Bowl. Cromartie wasn't a factor in the team's first meeting, but should have a bigger role on Sunday. Quentin Jammer, another former first-round pick, has been solid on the other corner. First-year starter at strong safety Clinton Hart set a goal of six interceptions this season. Hart intercepted five passes, but exceeded the team's expectations for him. Free safety Marlon McCree also has been an excellent defender for the team. Rookie Eric Weddle, who has proven to be quite a find in nickel situations and on special teams, had a key interception on the goal line against the Colts.
CB Asante Samuel had another impressive year, providing an intimidating presence on the left side and leading the team with six interceptions to earn his first Pro Bowl appearance. If there is a weak link in this New England secondary, it is right cornerback Ellis Hobbs, who at 5-9 and 195 pounds is somewhat undersized. He and Samuel are backed up by 14-year veteran Rodney Harrison, who started every game after serving a four-game suspension to begin the season. Three-year veteran James Sanders proved to be a capable starter in Harrison's absence, while free safety Eugene Wilson is currently healthy after suffering his second consecutive injury-plagued season, missing five games with an ankle injury. Nickel back Randall Gay (three INTs), Willie Andrews, Mel Mitchell, and rookie Brandon Meriweather round out the secondary.

Nate Kaeding has converted on 24-of-27 field-goal tries but has had some struggles in the playoffs. Kaeding missed a potential 54-yard game-tying field goal against the Patriots in last year's playoffs. Punter Mike Scifres was selected as a Pro Bowl alternate and his unique punting style allows him to pin teams deep and is the reason why he leads the AFC with 36 punts downed inside the 20. Special teams ace Kassim Osgood also was selected as to the Pro Bowl for his kick coverage. Sproles became the first player since Dante Hall in 2002 to return both a kickoff and punt for a touchdown in one game, which he did against the Colts in Week 10.
Welker is the team's primary punt returner, averaging 10.0 yards per return. On kick returns Welker shares the duties with Hobbs, who made history in Week 1 with an NFL-record 108-yard return for a touchdown vs. the Jets. With the Patriots' offense so prolific, punter Chris Hanson had only 44 opportunities to kick, averaging 41.4 yards per punt. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski had no such issues, connecting on all 74 of his extra point opportunities and 21 of 24 field goal attempts.


Photos by Getty Images


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