Pats at Chargers.
These are my keys to the game, just under the wire.
How important is Tomlinson (#21) to San Diego's attack? Critical. How dangerous is he to the Patriots?
Five of the last seven MVPs have suffered a defeat at the hands of the Patriots in the playoffs. (The sixth, Rich Gannon, was deafeated one year before he was MVP in 2002 and the seventh. Shaun Alexander, didn't have to face the Pats in last year's super bowl.)
The Patriots have shown an ability to take away one a key player from many opponents. There's little doubt the Patriots will need to do that again on Sunday. Beyond that, they'll need offensive flexibility to keep pace with a Charger team that's accostomed to buliding leads and draining clocks in the fourth quarter.
Keys on Defense
Lineman must put mental pressure on Philip Rivers (#17) and Tomlinson through schemes.
Richard Seymour (#93) on the right, Ty Warren (#94) on the left, and big Vince Wilfork (#75) will be the foundation of what's likely to be a 3-4 defense. Since the Patriots 2001 season, the 3-4 has become more popular, despite the higher demands (in talent, smarts and salary) a 3-4 requires. Fully half of the remaining playoff teams (as of Saturday) employ the 3-4.
One advantage of the 3-4 is more flexibility in run-blocking and the Pats will need to do that effectively to stop Tomlinson without opening up the secondary to a pass attack. Tomlinson is capable of fitting into small gaps or drifting outside and speeding up. The Patriots linemen and smart and capable of handling the complex blocking the Chargers will throw at them.
If Tomlinson does prefer to slip outside and speed up, the Patriots linebacks must answer. It won't be easy because the Pats LBs are a poor matchup in speed.
Tedy Bruschi (#54) has been quiet this season. Since making his comeback last season, his numbers have been off from his 2003-2004 Super Bowl tear. In those seasons, he had two touchdowns off interceptions each. Tomlinson benefits from poor gap assignments in defensive lines and burns outside linebackers by faking outside and cutting inside.
Bruschi must rise to the occasion and force a turnover (or two) either by putting the hurt on Tomlinson's small hands or by getting the interceptions that have lofted the Pats through three of the past four post-seasons.
Keys on Offense.
The Patriots probably can't afford any turnovers. Cory Dillon (#28) occasionally makes them. He's a big x-factor in this game. The team which suffers an exausted defense first is likely to win. If used strategically, Dillion should have the stamina the help the Pats win that battle.
Brady needs to be his usual self and bring a high awareness level with him to behind center. Being able to read the Chargers Pat-like linebacker blitz schemes and improvse before the snap will be important.
1. Bruschi needs to force a turnover, one way or another. 2. The Pats can accept a certain amount of Tomlinson running, but they need to prevent him from speeding up on the outside. 3. The Patriots need to score first and quiet the crowd. Staying a score ahead will narrow the Chargers playbook.
The closer the game, the better for the Pats. If things are still up in the air in the fourth, a lack of winning playoff experience should smother Rivers, Marty Schottenheimer, and the Bolts' fans.
Posted January 7, 2007.