Playoff-tested Patriots to be tested by Bolts


Published: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Chargers have beaten the New England Patriots in September and October without any problem.

Now they need to do it in January, when the Patriots really shine.

The Patriots visit the Chargers today in the divisional round, and the numbers don't lie — it should be a pretty good game.

San Diego has been supercharged by NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson, who rewrote the league's single-season scoring records with 31 touchdowns and 186 points. He's still looking for the first playoff win — and touchdown — of his six-year career.

New England is led by Tom Brady, the quarterback who is 11-1 in the playoffs, including three Super Bowl victories in a four-year span.

There are plenty of other factors.

San Diego scored an NFL-high 492 points behind Tomlinson and first-year starting quarterback Philip Rivers. New England held its opponents to 237, second-lowest in the league. Defensive-minded coach Bill Belichick no doubt will throw something at Rivers that the QB hasn't seen.

While the Patriots will try to keep marching toward their fourth Super Bowl appearance in six seasons, the Chargers and their coach, Marty Schottenheimer, will try to erase some brutal playoff history.

The Chargers haven't won in the playoffs since stunning Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game on Jan. 15, 1995. Counting the Super Bowl wipeout that followed, they've lost three straight in the postseason.

And of course, Schottenheimer is 5-12 in the playoffs. Should the loss column hit 13 short of the Super Bowl, he could be fired by general manager A.J. Smith. They haven't seen eye to eye in the last several months. Schottenheimer has a year left on his contract, at more than $3 million.

San Diego has beaten the Patriots twice in the last five regular seasons, in 2002 in San Diego and in 2005, when they snapped the Patriots' NFL-record 21-game home winning streak.

Then again, all that might not matter on Sunday.

"I honestly don't believe the outcome of this weekend's game is going to be influenced in any way by history," said Schottenheimer, who has lost his last five playoff games dating to 1993 when he was coaching Kansas City. "History is a road map. You know, it doesn't give you the ultimate declaration of 'what is."'

What the Chargers hope for is a step toward their first Super Bowl title.

While the Patriots were winning those three Super Bowls in four seasons, the Chargers made just one appearance, an overtime loss at home to the New York Jets in the 2004 wild-card round.

Rivers was just a rookie then, the third-string inactive quarterback. The Chargers had yet to draft Shawne Merriman, the outside linebacker who led the NFL with 17 sacks this season despite serving a four-game suspension after testing positive for steroids.

The Chargers, who won their last 10 games to finish an NFL-best 14-2, are well aware of the Patriots' mystique.

"But what does it means to us?" asked Merriman. "They're a team we have to beat to get to where we want to go. That's really all it means to the San Diego Chargers. And that's not a discredit to the New England Patriots because they know how to win, but everybody to us has the same record in the playoffs."

Brady will be making his 13th playoff appearance while Rivers makes his first.

"He's a heck of a player, and I think he's a lot of the reason why they've done what they've done in the past years, and why they keep getting back here year after year," Rivers said. "They don't get maybe all the attention throughout the year and you look up and they're 12-4 and they're right back where they usually are."

While the Chargers earned a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, the AFC East champion Patriots beat the Jets 37-16 last Sunday in the wild-card round.

While the Patriots have the three Super Bowl rings, the Chargers have nine Pro Bowl players and five All-Pros.

"Those three Super Bowls, that was a long time ago," Brady said. "This year they're the top dog, 14-2. They have it all. We have to travel out there and see if we can put together our best football, because that is what it is going to take."

Tomlinson and Rivers remember the Chargers coming out too emotional in the playoffs two years ago, then being drained before the game was over. While trying to remain more businesslike this time, they've got to expect a surprise or two from Belichick.

"Every team that is left is a good team," Belichick said. "They all have a significant number of strengths that have enabled them to put together the record and standing that they are in. San Diego is at the top of that list. You are playing the best teams and you have to play your best football because there is not a lot of room for error."

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