The Chargers beat the Colts and paid dearly for the victory. Moderate injuries (or reinjuries) to their Quarterback, feature Tight End, and feature Running Back punctuated a storyline that colored the win as nothing short of miraculous, given the performance of the Chargers' second-stringers. But I've never been surprised by elevated play when subs take snaps for Pro Bowl candidates. There's something about the chemistry that results of not being prepared and suddenly playing on adrenaline, mixing with an opponent that lacks preparation for a suddenly changed team that frequently results in wins or at the least, respectable losses.
So the question asked in the wake of that game was: could San Diego enjoy the same chemistry in New England? I don't believe so. When players are questionable leading up to a game, their replacements have time to over-think their new role and their opposition time to digest scouting data and prepare. Perhaps the only thing that San Diego has going for it is its apparently successful attempt to mask who will be ready to play. Gates appears likely to play, but not for the entire game. Rivers seems unlikely to play, but participated in a closed-stadium workout. Tomlinson recovered from his knee injury last week but the Patriots will certainly seek a second opinion. Even Shawne Merriman missed practices this week with flu-like symptoms.
So what do the Patriots do the beat the Chargers? Perhaps the most effective method of slowing the Patriots this year has been bringing a speedy and exotic mosiac of blitzes around Brady's offensive line. San Diego will doubtlessly bring them to get the turnovers they'll need to win the game.
The Patriots best response will be set up with single back formations, making use of their healthier Tight Ends to give Brady maximum flexibility at the snap. An ability to send TE out into the flats, or to keep them at home to assist in pass-protection should maintain his ability to let receivers get attractive matchups. Alternatively, the Patriots can continue to sharpen their run-blocking. If Merriman and Shaun Phillips do rush the outside, Belichick will be happy to take it and get four-to-six yards per carry with an apparently peaking Lawrence Maroney. A willingness to be that patient (and there have been games where the Pats haven't demonstrated it) will freeze San Diego's Linebacker corps often enough to keep a complete playbook.
Peace Under Center
On Sunday, Brady can make one but not two mistakes that lead to interceptions. The Patriots D will look worst if it faces a San Diego running attack—whoever carries the ball—that's running the clock down on a lead. The Charger's emotional defense feasts on flustered Quarterbacks that rush passes, get happy feet, or lose the football. The bad news is that Brady doesn't fit the profile: he throws the ball away, he calmly takes sacks, and, when running, he slides on time. When he does make tight throws they're nearly off the turf to Welker or nearly hitting the crossbar to Moss in the end zone.
I'm sure on one level the Patriots coaching corps would prefer to stare across the field at the Colts tomorrow. In a way, they'll be able to do it. Despite the media focus on the signal videotaping at the beginning of the year, I still consider the uber-motivator for this club to be the nightmare at Indianapolis last January. That opportunity was missed in such tragic fashion, the Patriots have dedicated themselves with unmatched obsession to wash that stain from their hands.
A game plan that includes the full roster of the Bolts, a solid running option with Maroney, and a calm and collected Brady will clean up soundly.
Posted January 19, 2008.