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Turner's play-calling will be critical against Patriots defense

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The Chargers and Patriots met in New England in Week 2, with the Patriots winning, 34-14, after jumping to a 24-0 halftime lead.

The Pats held the ball for 35:46 and actually ran the ball more times than they passed it (32-31). Don't expect to see that this week.

The Chargers weren't playing anywhere near as well as they are now. It's hard to travel through three time zones and play well, but the Chargers did it last week at Indianapolis. In the first meeting, the Chargers did not have receiver Chris Chambers, and Pro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie was not starting. Since Cromartie has moved into the starting lineup in Week 9, they've allowed 33 yards less per game passing, their defensive passer rating has gone down from 98 to 72, and the average pass play has dropped 1.7 yards. Also, in the first four games of the season, San Diego's defense had four interceptions. In the next 12 games, they had 26 interceptions.

Here are my key matchups for Sunday's AFC Championship Game between San Diego and New England ...



Norv Turner, Head Coach, San Diego
 
Tedy Bruschi, LB, New England


Norv Turner is a master at calling the right play at the right time -- and he will have to be masterful again this week, especially if the Chargers end up playing with backup Billy Volek at quarterback, possibly without LaDainian Tomlinson and possibly without tight end Antonio Gates (certainly not at full speed). Turner loves play-action passes and screens. If you see one, more than likely you'll see three or four during the game -- just ask the Colts, who were killed on two of them last week. Turner also is a very good play-caller in two-minute drills.

Bruschi is not overly big or fast, he just makes plays. He has great anticipation and is an elite player at diagnosing plays. Not many players are more instinctive. He will be the key for the Patriots defense against play-caller extraordinaire Turner. Bruschi plays weak inside linebacker and it's a treat to watch him play.



Shawne Merriman, LB, San Diego
 
Matt Light, LT, New England


If you're going to beat Tom Brady and the Patriots you need to keep up the pressure and not give him time to survey the field. Merriman had 2 sacks in the Week 2 game, but Brady completed 25-of-31 passes for 279 yards and 3 touchdowns. Overall, Merriman started the season slow -- after four games, he had just three sacks and did not show the intensity he had in 2006 when he had 17 sacks. That 2006 intensity has now picked up greatly. In rushing the passer, Merriman likes to fake inside and then use speed to get to the edge. He will also use a stutter-step for an inside move. Many of the Chargers' 30 regular-season interceptions have come due to pressure by Merriman and LB Shaun Phillips.

Here's how these teams stacked up this season in some critical statisitcal categories:
Category San Diego New England
Point differential plus-128 plus-315
Sack differential plus-18 plus-26
Turnover margin plus-24 plus-16
Third-down conversion pct. 39.2 48.2

Light, who was selected to start in the Pro Bowl, is having his best year in the NFL. He'll get a good test against Merriman. In the Week 2 meeting, the Pats threw 10 consecutive passes in the first two series -- nine of those plays came with a no-huddle and eight came from a shotgun formation. That makes it tough on pass rushers. Light is a sound player who rarely makes a mistake. This is a very good matchup, and the winner of it will have a major say in the outcome of the game.


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