My money is on David.........
The Chargers' Only Chance
By Andy Benoit, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Even the second king of the United Kingdom of Israel - otherwise known as David - had a better chance heading into his battle than do the battered San Diego Chargers.
The Chargers' four most important players - quarterback Philip Rivers, running back LaDainian Tomlinson, tight end Antonio Gates and nose tackle Jamal Williams - are all dealing with what have been well-documented, and will soon be nauseatingly over-documented, injuries.
What's more, the Goliath that San Diego is facing Sunday afternoon is a 17-0 juggernaut that already humiliated the team 38-14 on national television back in the second game of the season.
"Since Week 2 we wanted to go back up there against New England," said left tackle Marcus McNeill. "We are a much different team now. Even though they are rolling, we're going to try and go into this game like we take every game. We are going to be the underdogs and nobody wants us to win. But that's fine; we'll take the role again."
So far, the Chargers have done quite well in that role. Before they played the underdog, they were cast as the goat. A 1-3 start led to a 5-5 record in November, and first-year head coach Norv Turner was the biggest pariah in town.
Of course, the problems stopped there. Turner's team has since won eight consecutive games, including the most unlikely of all last week, when the shorthanded Bolts downed the defending world champion Colts 28-24 in the final game ever played in the RCA Dome.
"The way that we're playing now, nothing can stop us," defensive end Igor Olshansky boasted after that game. "The way that we overcome adversity and everything else. I guarantee you that Belichick and everybody else over there are scratching their heads saying, 'Man, we better get ready.'"
Olshansky's assessment is refreshing, considering the played-out cliche of "nobody is giving us a chance" is ripe for the Chargers' picking. It's early, but so far, the San Diego players are giving the Patriots their due respect and viewing this game from an uncommon lens of confident realism.
"It'll probably be the toughest game we've ever played," said LaDainian
Even the usually trenchant Philip Rivers said, "We know it will be a challenge. We are going against a team that might be the best there ever was."
Linebacker Shawne Merriman was equally level-headed, stating "We are going to come in there fired up, but they are undefeated this year and they have been tested several times," he said. "We have to go prove it. We have to go in there and show we can beat these guys."
But can the Chargers beat these guys? Sure, few thought they could down the Colts, but the Colts were a team they had defeated in their two previous matchups. The Patriots are the team that embarrassed them earlier this year and truncated their 14-win season the previous year.
In the interests of playing the devil's advocate, here are five factors that could help the 14-point underdog Chargers shock the mighty Patriots on Sunday:
Note: in all likelihood, all five of these factors, as well as the turnover battle, will have to fall in San Diego's favor if a stunning upset is to occur.
Note II: If either LaDainian Tomlinson or Philip Rivers is unable to play on Sunday, then consider the remainder of this piece a moot point.
Note III: Have you ever seen so many conditions placed on another list of conditions when making an argument for why one team can beat another in a conference Championship game?
1. Antonio Cromartie. Bill Belichick has already dismissed the relevance of his team's Week 2 victory, saying this is a different Chargers football team. He's right. One part of that difference is the cornerback Cromartie.
The first-team All-Pro was a mere backup when these clubs met in September. Against the Patriots, Cromartie recorded 0 tackles, 0 passes defensed and 0 interceptions. However, since Week 6, the second-year star out of Florida State has captured a starting job and registered a remarkable 11 interceptions. He is on the cusp of becoming a genuine stopper on the outside - the type of shutdown corner who can make quarterbacks rethink the way they attack downfield.
This alone makes Cromartie's presence significant, though what adds an extra flavor to the formula is the fact that he's 6'2" - which is essentially the equivalent of being a 6'8" point guard - and has a 40-inch-plus vertical leap. There is a certain Patriot receiver who has given opponents fits all season. Jacksonville was able to take him away by double- and triple-teaming him. Of course, they paid dearly for that, as Tom Brady picked them apart underneath. With the high-flying Cromartie, the Chargers have a fighting chance of containing Randy Moss with traditional coverage.
2. Stephen Cooper. Another young defensive standout who has emerged down the stretch for San Diego is inside linebacker Cooper. The fifth-year veteran began the season as a somewhat callow first-year starter but has since blossomed into a highly-active interior run defender (he's solid in pass coverage, as well). Cooper's improvement could help slow down the surging Laurence Maroney, and force the Patriots into a one-dimensional offensive approach. New England has thrived as a pass-happy offense all season, but against San Diego they'd be facing a defensive unit that led the league in interceptions in 2007.
3. Eric Weddle. Rookie safety Weddle has come into his own as of late, replacing the mediocre Clinton Hart in the starting lineup. Weddle's inimitable versatility allows him to line up anywhere on the field. Don't be surprised if Chargers defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell concocts a unique formula that, in some fashion, uses Weddle as a counter to deadly ex-Charger Wes Welker.
4. Chris Chambers. This speedy outside weapon was with the pathetic Dolphins last time these two teams squared off. Chambers has faced Belichick's team twice a year throughout his career and has historically been held in check (he's never had more than 75 yards receiving against New England and has, on several occasions, been held to under 40 yards). However, the Patriots could be playing right into San Diego's hands if they elect to take away Chambers. Against the Colts on Sunday, Rivers often eschewed Chambers and was able to find No. 2 wideout Vincent Jackson (seven receptions for 93 yards). The über- athletic Jackson has flourished in recent weeks; at 6'5", 241 pounds, the Patriots simply don't have a cornerback who can match up with him.
5. Momentum. Sure, the Patriots have won 17 straight, but such an extended streak is almost counterproductive to the intangible X-factor known as momentum. The Chargers, winners of eight straight, have been riding a wave since hitting their low point back in November. The Patriots, at this stage, aren't riding anything; they're just proving to be damn good swimmers. Ultimately, gravitational pull can halt any wave, but fatigue or a cramp can stunt any swimmer.
Are we reaching here, with factor Number 5? Certainly. But remember, David downed Goliath because he had a sling that, thanks to the laws of momentum, was able to launch a stone into the forehead of the presumably unbeatable Goliath.
--- Contact Andy Benoit: firstname.lastname@example.org