- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2008

Saying the odds are stacked against the San Diego Chargers in today’s AFC Championship game is like saying that it will be chilly in Foxborough, Mass., for today’s 3 p.m. kickoff against the New England Patriots.

The Patriots, the first team to complete a 16-0 regular season, have won more Super Bowls (three) during the last seven seasons than the Chargers have won playoff games (two, both in the last two weeks).

The Patriots are 9-0 at home. The Chargers are 5-4 on the road, 2-4 against non-losing teams. One of those defeats was a 38-14 blowout in Week 2 at New England, part of a 1-3 start under new coach Norv Turner, who replaced the fired Marty Schottenheimer a year ago.

“Whenever you have almost the entire coaching staff leaving, it takes some adjusting,” Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman said. “A lot of starters [weren’t] playing in the preseason. We had to get on the same page. I think it will be a little different the second time around.”

Merriman might be right. After all, the host Chargers led the Patriots 21-13 with less than eight minutes left in last year’s AFC Divisional game only to lose 24-21. San Diego ended New England’s 21-game home winning streak with a 41-17 rout in 2005. And the Chargers have won eight straight, second to the Patriots’ 17 in a row. With Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates already hobbled, they lost All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson and quarterback Philip Rivers to knee injuries last week, but rallied to upset the defending champion Colts 28-24.

“[The Chargers] are one year removed from being 14-2,” said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, named the NFL’s MVP after throwing a record 50 touchdown passes this season. “It’s really the same team. This is the best team in the second half of the season, averaging 30 points a game [and] giving up 13 points a game [during the 6-0 closing tear to the regular season]. They [forced] 48 turnovers and [had] over 40 sacks. It will be extremely tough for us.”

But these are the Patriots. In the cold. In Foxborough. You know how the story ends. Since Brady and coach Bill Belichick teamed up in 2001, the Patriots are 8-0 at home in postseason.

“We’re playing perhaps the greatest team to ever play so we’ve got a heck of a task and we just hope we don’t get embarrassed,” said Tomlinson, who’s more sure than Rivers, Gates or run-stopping defensive tackle Jamal Williams (ankle) to play today.

The Patriots’ last loss wasn’t an embarrassment.

But they led the 2006 AFC title game in Indianapolis 21-3 late in the first half before losing 38-34. Asked if that defeat, the only one for the Belichick-Brady tandem in seven conference championship games and Super Bowls, was still a motivator, the coach didn’t demur.

“I would hope so,” Belichick said. “We’ve worked all year just to get to the same position we were at last year.”

Having fixed their biggest weakness with elite receivers Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth (256 catches and 34 touchdowns combined) and added Pro Bowl linebacker Adalius Thomas, the Patriots were the preseason favorites to win the Super Bowl. They did nothing to dispel that expectation by scoring a record 589 points, leading the league with 411.3 yards a game and ranking fourth in points and yards allowed. Only four foes — the Colts, Baltimore, Philadelphia and the New York Giants — finished within a score of New England.

“[There’s] a lot of hype around this game and deservedly so, but at the same time it’s a football game,” said safety Rodney Harrison, an ex-Chargers player. “It’s won and lost between the lines, not in the media. It doesn’t matter who you guys pick. It doesn’t matter what our records are. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done in the past, your accolades. The only thing that matters is how you execute on Sunday.”

Even though the 35-year-old Harrison has two Super Bowl rings, today’s game is special for him since he missed the 2006 playoffs with a knee injury. It’s even bigger for 39-year-old linebacker Junior Seau, who hasn’t won a title and hasn’t been this far since 1994, the fourth of 12 straight Pro Bowl seasons with his hometown Chargers.

“To play [the Chargers for a shot at the Super Bowl], it’s definitely something special,” said Seau, who missed the 2006 playoffs with an arm injury.

This stage is a new experience for Tomlinson, who needed seven years to experience his first playoff victory.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am,” he said. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve dreamed about playing in the Super Bowl and having the chance to win the championship.”

Unfortunately for L.T. and Co., the road to Arizona goes through New England. And unlike the Chargers, the Patriots are healthy and primed for the final two victories they need to make history after two years (gasp) without a championship.

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