Chargers have changed since teams squared off in September

SAN DIEGO -- It seems like it was in another lifetime.

On Sept. 16, the San Diego Chargers headed into a rematch with New England, eager to atone for their epic playoff collapse against the Patriots eight months earlier.

The Chargers said they had more focus than they did in the January game. But the Chargers weren't even competitive the second time around. They were schooled by Tom Brady and Randy Moss, made a bunch more mistakes and were routed 38-14 by a team fresh off the Spygate scandal.

A lot has changed in four months, mostly for the Chargers.

They'll play the Patriots again in Foxborough on Sunday in the AFC championship game, with the winner going to the Super Bowl.

The Patriots are undefeated, needing two more wins for the NFL's first 19-0 season.

The Chargers advanced by upsetting last year's Super Bowl champions, the Indianapolis Colts, 28-24 on Sunday.

The Chargers will be big underdogs. That's OK with them. After winning eight straight and 12 of 14, they know they've at least righted all those early season wrongs, including the ones on display in the earlier game against the Patriots.

"We're a totally different team," said two-time NFL rushing champion LaDainian Tomlinson, who expects to play after a hyperextended left knee kept him out of much of Sunday's win at Indianapolis.

"We're playing differently and at that point that was the second game that we had had with the coaching staff and what not. Obviously it was a long time ago from Week 2, but it's still going to be a heck of a challenge."

The Chargers and their fans came into this season thinking they were an elite team. There was a lot to build on following an NFL-best 14-2 finish in 2006, even though there was that shocking playoff loss to the Patriots.

After looking less-than-stellar in an opening win against Chicago, the Chargers flat out tanked against the Patriots.

The Patriots scored on the game's opening drive and never looked back. They raced to a 24-0 halftime lead while the Chargers floundered.

San Diego's Philip Rivers threw for just 63 yards and had two interceptions in the first half. One of the interceptions was returned 65 yards for a touchdown by Adalius Thomas, one of the Patriots' big free-agent acquisitions.

The Chargers were embarrassed, and it only got worse. They lost the next week at Green Bay, then blew a lead at home against Kansas City. The hometown faithful didn't take the third straight loss well.

It turns out the Chargers needed a month to settle in with new coach Norv Turner and his staff, and vice versa.

The loss to the Patriots just happened to be the most glaring.

The biggest change since then "is that we're not having major negative plays," Turner said. "The feeling was we couldn't do anything in those first four weeks, but we actually did a lot of good things, but when you do good things and have major negative plays it takes away from the good things you do.

"It's interesting to look at when we were 1-2 and the sky was falling that two of those losses were to two of the teams that are getting ready to play this weekend and are pretty good. We didn't play nearly the way we wanted to play in New England certainly, but we had every chance to beat Green Bay. So maybe it wasn't as bad as it was perceived."

The defense certainly has changed since the first game. The Chargers were without inside linebacker Matt Wilhelm then, and Antonio Cromartie was a nickel back who was still several weeks away from going on an interception binge that earned him a starting job at cornerback and a spot on the elite All-Pro team.

"It's changed a lot," Pro Bowl outside linebacker Shawne Merriman said. "I think we've started adjusting a lot better before games and knowing what kind of teams we're playing. We've been coming in with a better game plan and a better focus in understanding what we have to do to win that game. I think we probably struggled a little bit more early on."

Cromartie, who led the NFL with 10 pickoffs, said he doesn't take a thing from the Sept. 16 debacle.

"If you look at our team, we are playing a whole lot better than we did in Week 2," he said. "This is Week 20 now and we're a whole different team. We've been undefeated since I think Week 12. It's a big thing for us just to keep it going."

He'll get the chance to defend Moss.

"I was more playing the nickel package and now I'm the starter. I can help out a lot more and see things to help out my teammates also," Cromartie said. "Just being able to cover Randy Moss is probably going to be one of the biggest things for me. It's going to be a big challenge for me in trying to put myself out as one of the best corners in facing one of the best receivers in the NFL."

Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour called the Chargers "one of the best teams in football the season half of the season. It's definitely not the same team we saw earlier in the year. They're playing their best football at this point and I think if you want to be successful in this league, I think that's when you have to do it. You have to do it in November, December, January, and they've done that."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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