Thursday, January 17, 2008

Preview of Patriots vs. Chargers (1/17/2008)

To be honest, I wanted the Colts. Not because I'm a "you gotta play the best teams" or "it just won't be the same if we don't play the Colts" yahoo. I thought the Patriots would have whipped the Colts good. Indy without Dwight Freeney scares me a lot less than San Diego without Phillip Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson. The reason is what I've been saying for weeks now; no team can hang with the Patriots unless they blitz the quarterback and play press-coverage on the receivers. The Eagles, Ravens, and Giants did just that and all of them almost beat the Patriots. And even though Indy is willing to blitz some, they never deviate from their "two-deep shell," and therefore, the Patriots would have scored at will against them.

The Chargers are a different animal. They often blitz and play tight coverage, and they led the NFL with 48 turnovers on the year (an average of 3 per game). Their cornerbacks are young and athletic, which means they are unpredictable -- which could be good or bad for the Patriots. Mind you, I'm not saying the Chargers will win, only that they present more matchup problems and less certainty than the Colts. Perhaps the Patriots defense will have more luck against the Chargers offense than they would have had against the Colts offense, but that is far from assured. And I suppose I should be glad there won't be any last-minute Peyton Manning drives to win the game. But no matter what Manning did, I was certain the Patriots would beat Indy. It's less of a sure thing against the Chargers.

The Patriots won a regular season game against the Chargers, 38-14 on September 16 at Foxboro. And as is my standard practice in such cases, I will try to decide whether or not enough has changed since that game to give the Chargers a chance to make up the 24-point deficit and possibly win the game.

Point #1. Turnover turn-around.

After starting the year causing fewer than 2 turnovers a game, the Chargers had 32 turnovers in their last 10 games (3.2 per game), twice notching 6 turnovers against teams that made the playoffs. All those forced turnovers coincided with their resurgence as a force in the AFC West -- where their 8-2 record in their last 10 contests won them the division by 4 full games.

Part of the improvement in turnovers was the emergence of cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who led the NFL with ten interceptions (and had one last week). His excellent play allowed the team to use longtime starter Drayton Florence to cover the opposition's third-best receiver, and that gave their blitzing linebackers more time to get to the quarterback.

This week more than any other, the Patriots must protect the ball. San Diego is back to their ball-hawking ways, and the Chargers' best chance to win is to force take-aways and turn them into points. They had three of them last week against the Colts; just another day at the office for them.

Point #2. Offensive no more.

The Chargers offense started out slowly, averaging 17 points in the first 4 games. However, since then, they are averaging 29 points a game, and perhaps more importantly, they haven't scored fewer than 17 points in any of their last 12 games. You can make numbers do a lot of things, but a 70% increase in offensive production looks pretty good no matter how you slice it.

Sometimes, the San Diego offense appears to be from another era, one where the running game was king. Their running game is very good (seventh in yards per game and yards per rush, and tied for second in rushing touchdowns), and they have one of the best tight ends in football, All-Pro Antonio Gates. But their wide receivers are sub-par, and their quarterback has been erratic -- all of which creates a lot of pressure to run the ball very well and use the tight end in the passing game.

To have any chance to win, the Chargers will have to run the ball effectively and get Gates involved in the passing game. Because if the Patriots can stuff the run, the Chargers offense could grind to a halt when receivers can't get open or drop passes. But there are problems with the running game and the tight end (read on for details)...

Point #3. Injuries are (a big) part of the game.

The Chargers have a lot of injuries to deal with. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson is nursing a bruised knee that kept him out of the fourth quarter last week. Quarterback Philip Rivers has not one, but two knee strains (and I'm sure he'd have three if he had a third knee). And Gates is nursing a dislocated big toe, which limited him to 2 catches for 28 yards last week.

Rivers was never that mobile to begin with, but it can only help the Patriots that his plant leg is now hurting, which could cause trouble with accuracy and distance on his throws. The Chargers have no one on their roster to replace Gates, so if he can't go, it will be a big blow to their chances at an upset. And in a game where the Chargers must run the ball, they are fortunate to have Michael Turner (4.5 yards a carry in the regular season) to step in. However, the Patriots have more trouble with small, shifty runners like Tomlinson -- so if he can't go, it should be easier for the Patriots to stop Turner, who is more of a north-and-south runner.

Quick Points:

A) The weather on Sunday could actually favor the Chargers. Sure, it will be cold, but if the forecast for wind is correct, it could slow the Patriots passing game and make interceptions more likely.

B) If Billy Volek plays instead of Philip Rivers, don't be celebrating too early. Some of the closest games the 2007 Patriots played were against backup quarterbacks:

- A.J. Feeley (Eagles) pushed them to the limit before losing 31-28.
- Kyle Boller (Ravens) also pushed them to the limit before losing 27-24.
- Backups Chad Pennington (Jets) and Trent Edwards (Bills) performed much better than the starters in games against the Patriots this year.

C) Watch the kickoff return game. San Diego was third in the league with 25.5 yards per return, and they fumbled no kickoffs for the season. If the Patriots are forced to have Chad Jackson return kicks, this could be an area of great advantage for the Chargers.


All that said, between injuries, playing their third game, the shocking change in weather they face (60-degrees in San Diego, 16-degrees in Foxboro), and the overall health of the Patriots -- I just don't see San Diego winning this game. If it's windy and/or they can get some turnovers, they could pull the upset. But the local 11 are too talented and too focused to let this one get away from them. 361 days ago, they lost to the Colts in the franchise's first failure in the AFC Championship Game. And for every one of those days, they have been working to get back to this game and win it. Their off-season moves were designed to prepare them to beat anyone who opposed them, and so far, it's worked out as planned.

It might be closer than people think, but there's just as much chance that it will be a blowout. I'd say the former; with the final score something like 34-24.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Chargers forced more turnovers in their last 10 games (32) than the Patriots did all year (31).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Repeat after me: 'All I want for Christmas is just two more wins, just two more wins, just two more wins!'"

Keep the faith,

- Scott



No comments:

Post a Comment