By Mike Callaham
Coming out of Foxborough with a win is a daunting challenge for any club, at any point of an NFL season. As well, based on what New England did to Miami out behind the woodshed last Monday, the Patriots showed no signs of losing the edge they've maintained under Tom Brady's leadership.
True, New England has won nine straight home openers going into Sunday's matchup—but the laws of probability dictate, in no uncertain terms, that all streaks must end and that the odds of continuing any streak diminish exponentially each time it is extended.
Not to imply that the Chargers will stroll in and out of Foxborough Stadium with the upset barring a performance for the ages. However, if the Chargers team that opened up the second half last week, out-scoring the Vikings 17-0 and holding them to 187 total yards on offense, shows up this weekend, the Patriots' impressive streak of home-opening victories is in serious jeopardy.
How well the Patriots' reshuffled offensive line handles the Chargers' formidable front-seven will go a long way towards determining the victor of this promising matchup. With two starters down on the offensive line, there's legitimate reason for concern in New England.
When the Patriots face off against the Chargers on Sunday, it will be without the services of starting center Dan Koppen and starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. In their place will be guard Brian Waters, picked up off of the scrap heap only last week, and rookie right-tackle Nate Solder.
And while some may point to the loss of the Chargers' starting left defensive end as an equalizer, they will soon find out that Luis Castillo will only be missed in terms of veteran depth. The fact is, that even without Castillo, San Diego is staked two-deep with star-caliber talent at each position along the defensive line this season.
This is due mainly to the emergence of prospects Vaughn Martin and Corey Liuget along with the continued inspired play of nose tackle Antonio Garay. The names are not well known, but their collective ability to blow up the line of scrimmage and open up lanes for the Chargers linebackers has only improved since recording 47 sacks last season.
As good as future Hall of Famer Tom Brady is, he is only human and can get as rattled under pressure as any when sufficient heat is applied. Conversely, as good as the Chargers defense is at getting to the quarterback, Brady should anticipate getting knocked around pretty good against the Chargers on Sunday.
Of course, the Chargers can't afford to give up any major real estate on special teams this week.
Regardless of any assertions to the contrary, the Chargers' special teams coverage units have yet to establish any dependable level of consistency. Although some have shown flashes of brilliance, no Chargers player has yet stepped-up to fill the considerable void left by since departed All-Pro gunner Kassim Osgood.
Additionally, due to the loss of one of the most accurate regular season kickers in league history in Nate Kaeding, the Chargers will be breaking in a new place-kicker when they face off against the Patriots. The Chargers do not want to see the game be decided by the untested leg of wild-card Nick Novak.
During his brief stay in America's finest city, Wes Welker had become somewhat of a fan-favorite in San Diego. In fact, some of us had really begun to question the sanity of then-head coach Marty Schottenheimer, who inexplicably elected to cut Welker in order to reserve a roster spot for a washed-up Tamarick Vanover. It's hard to believe in retrospect, but that is precisely how it went down.
It's been speculated that this was the final straw for A.J. Smith and, ultimately, marked the beginning of the end of Schottenheimer's controversial tenure in San Diego.
However, that's ancient history now, and how well rookie nickel back Marcus Gilchrist and the Chargers pass defense contains Wes Welker will go a long way towards determining the outcome of this matchup. With the pressure Brady should be expecting from the Chargers, you know he'll be looking hard for that quick-slant over the middle.
But, by all indications, the Chargers' defensive front-seven has developed to the point of being able to apply considerable pressure bringing only four down linemen. Should this trend continue into Sunday, it will allow the defense to drop the rest of the defense into coverage, taking away those short-to-intermediate routes Brady has relied upon so heavily over the years.
If the Chargers are successful in taking away the quick routes underneath, this game will turn into a rout in favor of the visiting team.
The ability of the Chargers defense to adjust when facing the Patriots' no-huddle offense will also have a major influence on the outcome of Sunday's meeting. As they did with great success against the Dolphins last week, the Patriots will do their very best to catch the Chargers between substitutions and take advantage of the favorable mismatches that the hurry-up offense presents.
The Patriots' physically gifted tight ends, Dan Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, allow them to spread opposing defenses out from their base set. This could cause serious problems for the Chargers defense who has had trouble covering the tight end in any set.
The Chargers are asking an awful lot from inexperienced inside linebacker Donald Butler, who should have his hands full against Brady and his talented duo of oversized wide receivers who masquerade as tight ends.
Love him or hate him, Bill Belichick is unquestionably one of, if not the, greatest game-day coaches to ever pace an NFL sideline. Norv Turner, on the other hand, will have to accomplish a great deal more in his career before any such comparisons between the two are warranted.
So it should be no surprise that Turner is 1-3 against the Patriots as the Chargers head coach. The biggest reason for this fact is the contrasting differences in approach between the two coaches.
Bill Belichick is what could be described as a "play to winner," or a coach who's not afraid to be aggressive and take chances in an effort to win a football game. Like other championship coaches in this new era of the NFL, Belichick places more emphasis on outscoring his opponents at any cost than he does with winning the time of possession and field position battles.
In contrast, Norv Turner falls under the classification of a "play not to loser," or a coach who's too paralyzed by the fear of losing in order to take full advantage of the weapons at his disposal. Instead of imagining what could go right, Turner is obsessed with what could go wrong which is why he has not been as successful as he could be.
Ultimately, the Chargers have a considerable advantage over the Patriots in terms of personnel. However, in order for San Diego to come out of New England with the win, they'll have to overcome the significant handicap that coach Turner's tired, uninspired and passively old-school approach to football presents.