BOSTON (CBS) – The New England Patriots open their home-portion of their schedule Sunday against a familiar foe; the San Diego Chargers.
This will be the 39th time the two teams meet, with the Patriots holding a 21-14-2 advantage. After winning 10 straight from 1973-2001, the Chargers have taken three of the five matchups. The Patriots have however won the important ones, going 2-0 the last two times the teams met in the playoffs.
The two teams faced off last year with New England pulling out a 23-20 win when San Diego missed a potential game-tying field goal with 23 seconds remaining. The Chargers rallied from a 23-3 deficit in the fourth quarter, but four first half turnovers came back to haunt them in the end.
Here are some of the key matchups for Sunday’s game.
Philips Rivers vs Patriots Defense
Phillips Rivers is one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL, but does not usually fare well against New England. In the 2010 meeting, Rivers went 34-for-50 for 336 yards with a touchdown and a pick. He is just 1-2 against New England in the regular season but played very well in the lone win back in 2008. Rivers torched the Patriots defense for 306 yards and three touchdowns, finishing with a passer rating of 141.9.
Rivers has a very quick, and unorthodox, release which keeps him standing upright throughout the game. The Patriots revamped defensive line will not only have to battle a solid offensive line, but the quick minded quarterback.
“He’s definitely one of the top guys in the NFL,” said Albert Haynesworth. “He’s a great quarterback; he’s going to get rid of the ball. He doesn’t take a ton of sacks, doesn’t take a ton of hits. We have to get a ton of pressure.”
“He’s tough mentally and physically he’s strong. He has a quick release that allows him to get out of a lot of trouble,” said Shaun Ellis. “We’re going to have our work cut out (for us). We just have to make sure we put great pressure on him, hopefully make him make mistakes.”
But Rivers is used to going against a Bill Belichick defense, and with this being his fourth matchup in five years, he knows a few things about what to expect.
“I think anytime you play this defense, you’ve got to always be ready for the unexpected. One thing you know going in is that they’re going to play disciplined football,” Rivers said, noting they have made him earn every year.
“One thing with the Patriots defense, as long as I’ve been playing them, their front has always been exceptional and it’s different this year. (Haynesworth and Ellis) obviously add to the group they already had. All the way across the board, they’re super stout and certainly make it challenging.”
Against the Vikings in Week 1, Rivers completed 33 of his 48 passes, throwing for 335 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He has an array of weapons and knows how to find each one of them.
Tom Brady vs Chargers Defense
On the Patriots side, Tom Brady will look to follow-up his franchise record 517 passing yards against the Miami Dolphins in week one. Brady is 3-2 against the Chargers, but struggled in the last years win, throwing for just 159 yards and a touchdown.
“We had like 200 yards of offense (that day),” Brady said on Wednesday. “ (We) didn’t do really well in the red area, didn’t really run it great, certainly didn’t throw it great, didn’t protect as well as we’re capable. We were pretty fortunate last year playing them. Hopefully we can execute better. They have a good team. They have a good defense.”
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The Chargers defense allowed just 187 total yards against the Vikings in Week 1, with a secondary that surrendered just 39 passing yards (although that might have more to do with Donovan McNabb). They also like to get after the quarterback, with a big threat coming from linebacker Shaun Phillips.
“Why would you let him go loose in your backfield? It’s suicide,” coach Bill Belichick said on Wednesday.
Phillips was just one of the Chargers defenders that harassed the Vikings, recording three tackles, a pass deflection and an interception. Newcomer Takeo Spikes led the way with 11 tackles, with defensive tackle Antonio Garay and Antwan Barnes each finishing with a sack and tackle for a loss.
“They’re going to give you some five-man pressure, a lot of four-man pressure,” said Belichick. “They have good players, they have good edge rushers, they have good interior rushers, they cover well, so there’re usually not a lot of wide open receivers. The quarterback has to hold the ball a little bit to wait for somebody to get open, gives the rush a chance to get there.”
It will be a tough week for #12, but if anyone knows how to break down a strong defense, it’s Brady.
Both teams sport very dangerous tight ends. The Patriots have their two-headed monster in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, while the Chargers have perennial pro-bowler Antonio Gates.
Gronk and Hernandez have already become main keys to the New England offense in just their second year, and each brings a different set of skills. While Gronk is the blocking, touchdown machine, Hernandez does his damage running routes and picking up yards after the catch.
All of that makes Brady’s job a lot easier.
“I think the skill set of both those players really allows us to be flexible,” said Brady. “Not only are they good blockers, but they can catch the ball too. You can run it behind them, you can play action pass. They’ve become pretty efficient in the passing game also, just to spread them out and being able to run them on different route combinations. They’re very good players.”
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Gronkowski is a tough matchup for anyone because of his size, and Hernandez gives the secondary problems because of his speed. Brady will look to utilize both, as he always does, and keep the Chargers guessing.
For the Patriots defense, they have the tough task of stopping the 6-4, 260 lb. Antonio Gates. A pro-bowl tight end the last seven years, Gates is one of Rivers’ favorite and most consistent targets. He had eight receptions for 74 yards in Week 1 against the Vikings, and will give the Patriots a tough time on Sunday.
“He gets open, he finds the open spaces,” said corner Leigh Bodden. “He’s not the quickest guy, not the fastest guy, but he gets open. He uses his body, that’s the basketball player in him.”
The Patriots will have plenty to worry about with the Chargers, from their big receiver Vincent Jackson to their “bowling ball” running back Mike Tolbert. But one guy they can’t lose focus on is Gates. And with his size, it will be hard not to.
Tune in to the Patriots-Chargers game Sunday at 4:15pm on 98.5 The Sports Hub and WBZ-TV. Tune in to Patriots Gameday at 11:30am on WBZ-TV and The Sports Hub’s pregame coverage, beginning at 1pm. After the game tune in to the Postgame show on 98.5, and to Patriots Fifth Quarter on TV38.