Sunday, January 13, 2008

Eyes On The Prize-AFC Championship Game Preview

You're riding high, bouncing back from early season disappointment, and ripping off 8 straight victories. A team has peaked, a roster has gelled, and a first year coach is somewhat vindicated. You've snapped a 10 year slump of playoff defeat. You've withstood the chants of "Marty", making him a ghost of season's past. You've stepped into the home of the defending champs, and left them without an opportunity to repeat. And what is the jus reward, the offering of the NFL Gods? You now draw the undefeated, record breaking, top seeded New England Patriots.

San Diego (11-5) at New England (16-0)
AFC Championship Game

The AFC championship game gives us a rematch of not only a matchup from earlier this season, but also a rematch of two teams that collided in last year's playoffs. If you're a Bolts fan, such as myself, it's a toss up of which was uglier to watch. You have the divisional round from last year, with the Chargers blowing an opportunity late in the fourth quarter or the regular season a$$ whoopin' we took in Foxboro. For myself, the close losses are always the most painful.

Now we open a new chapter, and the word "history" will line the pages. San Diego will enter this game as the biggest underdog in playoff history. New England has secured their 16-0 mark, and will look to continue their march to the claim of "greatest team in NFL history", or maybe in all of sports. A San Diego upset would forever link the Chargers and Patriots in the record books, and be assured of replays for decades to come.

NFL Defensive Leaders

1. Pittsburgh
2. Tampa Bay
3. Indianapolis
4. New England
5. Tennessee
6. Baltimore
7. NY Giants
8. Washington
9. Dallas
10. Philadelphia

New England Defense: With the Patriots being an offensive explosion, the area often overlooked is the defense. You want to know how to have a perfect season? How about being the best overall offense and being supported by the 4th overall defense in the NFL? The Patriots appear in the top 10 in most defensive categories. They rank 6th against the pass, allowing opponents less than 200 yards per game, and 10th against the run, allowing just over 98 yards per game. They don't create many turnovers, but are a very disciplined, experienced, and battle tested group. Offense will spring the fans from their seats, but defense will add victories to the win column.

New England offense: As you look at the NFL's defensive leader board, there's something else that can be seen at a glance, and it has nothing to do with the Patriots defense. Of the 10 top defenses in the NFL, New England has faced 7 of them this season. Your defensive leader board gives more example of the potency of the Patriots offense. With some of the teams represented on the list, the Pats could easily submit highlight reels to ESPN, creating their own sports reality version of "You Got Punk'd". Do I have to mention Randy Moss and Tom Brady? If you know nothing about the record breaking success of this duo by now, then you shouldn't even be reading this, because you don't watch the NFL. But a big key to the Pats offense, and the most underrated receiver in the NFL, is Wes Welker. Playing on a field with Randy Moss, Welker hasn't just prospered, he has starred.

San Diego Offense: The Chargers will enter the game with the league's leading rusher, in Ladainian Tomlinson, though he's a bit banged up. But the Bolts displayed a capable stable of backs in Sunday's victory over the colts, with Darren Sproles and Michael Turner stepping in to add to the ground production. The Bolts rank 7th in the league in rushing, which represents the only offensive edge they have over the Pats.

The key to the Chargers resurgence is without a doubt the addition of wide receiver Chris Chambers to the roster. When comparing early season pass production with the late numbers, it's obvious that a big play receiver, or lack thereof, will either make or break QB Phillip Rivers*.

Chambers provided a spark in the passing game, giving the bolts the ability to stretch the field and keep the defenses honest, by not allowing the luxury of stacking the box for LT. Immediately, the run and pass productions were increased. The Big target, Antonio Gates, is nursing a sore toe but expected to play, as is Tomlinson with a sore knee. The latest listing on Rivers is "day to day".

San Diego Defense: The Chargers show a gambling defense, ranked 14th overall. What's most impressive is the +24 turnover margin, which leads the NFL. Sometimes when you gamble, you pay the price, but it's the way of the bolts. They'll bring multiple blitz packages to keep opposing QBs out of their comfort zone. The secondary is filled with ball hawks, including league interceptions leader Antonio Cromartie. This is a defense that was humiliated in the early season meeting between these teams, but they spent a lot of time on the field, with the dismal play of the offensive unit.

Analysis: After watching the Patriots play this season, it's hard to believe anyone can defeat them. But upon observation, there were some noticable errors in the play calling of opponents. With the Patriots, you can't go out and play their game. And if you're a quick strike offense, you can't even play your game. You stop Tom Brady and company by keeping them on the sidelines. You move the sticks and manage the clock, hoping to still be in striking distance by the fourth. The key to a Chargers victory would be the ability to consistently move the ball on the ground, and not be in a position where your hopes weigh on the arm of your quarterback.

That's easier said than done, because Billicheck will always look to eliminate the weapons of an opposing offense. His in-game adjustments are a work of art, and the playing field is his canvas. It's the final step before walking on the big stage. They are a determined team with everything to lose, playing against and underdog that is expected to lose. It's your biblical matchup of "David and Goliath". It's the AFC championship game. It's the Chargers and Patriots.

*Note: Someone should explain to Phillip Rivers that the underdog doesn't bark, they go out and bite. As a long time Charger fan, his antics in the past few weeks embarrass me. I grew up watching Dan Fouts play, and he would never reduce himself to verbally battle fans in opposing stadiums. Opposing fans are silenced by a visiting "team's" play on the field, and not by a hobbled QB that allows spectators to get inside his head.

May the best team win...hopefully it's mine.

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