In January of 2006, I managed to get a single ticket to the New England Patriots vs. San Diego Chargers AFC Divisional Playoff game in San Diego and it was the greatest game I've ever attended.
The Chargers were 14-2 and according to just about everyone, especially San Diego fans and "mediots," headed to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots, on the other hand, weren't much of a threat. They lacked any major receiving threats, Corey Dillon was on his last legs, the defense was missing Rodney Harrison, and current non-starting 49er Tully Banta-Cain was starting at outside linebacker.
All signs pointed to a Charger win, if not a blowout. But that's not what unfolded before me in my seat 14 rows behind the Patriots' bench.
New England managed to keep it close, got a key forced fumble from Troy Brown, and a dagger-in-the-back bomb to Reche Caldwell that set up the go-ahead field goal.
When Nate Kaeding missed a 54-yard field goal to close out a 24-21 win for the Patriots, the victorious New England players rushed the field, some doing the Shawne Merriman "Lights Out Dance," for which they would later be called classless by LaDainian Tomlinson.
Thus began one of the best current rivalries in the NFL.
In week two of 2007, the Chargers ran into the buzz saw in the form of a Patriots team fired up in the wake of Spygate. They were blown off the field, 38-14.
In the 2007 AFC Championship Game, the Chargers were banged up after taking down the Colts on the road. Tomlinson was in for two plays, Philip Rivers played on a torn ACL, and Antonio Gates was battling his now-infamous toe injury. The game was still close, though San Diego was unable to score a touchdown and ended up falling 21-12.
Two years in a row, the Patriots ended the Chargers' season, which leads us to this weekend's renewal of the rivalry: a must-win game for the Chargers for so many reasons.
The biggest is not even related to the Patriots. It is that San Diego needs to keep pace with the Denver Broncos or else they might not make the playoffs.
The rest of the reasons pretty much all relate to New England. The Patriots are the proverbial monkey on their back. A win over the Pats could be the thing that sparks the Chargers to turn their season around. They are one of the most talented teams in the NFL. If they start playing like it, look out.
The flip side to that coin is that a loss to the Matt Cassel Patriots could send their season into even more of a tailspin. If the Chargers can't beat the Pats without Tom Brady, when they desperately need a win, at home, in front of a national audience, they might as well just pack it in.
The Chargers have had the Patriots in their cross-hairs for the entire offseason, specifically drafting players to counter the Pats' personnel. (Maybe they should've been focusing on the Panthers', Dolphins', or Broncos' personnel as well, but I digress.)
San Diego's window is closing fast. Anyone who's seen them play this year can tell you LaDainian Tomlinson isn't quite the back he once was. In fact, Darren Sproles has almost surpassed him as a more dangerous home run threat.
Shawne Merriman will be in a contract year in 2009, coming off knee surgery. No one knows for sure if Antonio Gates will ever be the player he was before injuring his toe.
It's now or never for San Diego. They've been waiting all offseason for this one. They desperately need a win. The Pats don't have Tom Brady. There are no more excuses.
I'm glad that, yet again, I'll be there to witness it.
Mike Dussault is the Patriots Community Leader at Bleacher Report, and also a contributor at BostonSportz.com. His Patriots blog can be viewed here and he can be contacted at PatriotsPropaganda@gmail.com.