Newyorkjets.com will profile each playoff game in this NFL postseason, with a special eye on Jets angles in each of the matchups. Today: the AFC Championship Game:
(3) SAN DIEGO (13-5) at (1) NEW ENGLAND (17-0), 3 p.m. EST, CBS
The Patriots know in their heart of hearts that nothing less than a Super Bowl championship will do, but to get to Phoenix they first have to dispose of San Diego at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
A win would give them another of those distinctions they've been earning as they've mowed down one opponent after another: They would become the first NFL team to ever go 18-0 in a season. But Tom Brady said of the multitude of accolades, "It all means nothing if we lose this week."
It's premature to dismiss San Diego, the big underdog in this game. After all, the Chargers went into the RCA Dome to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Colts with sore-toed TE Antonio Gates, lost Tomlinson and QB Philip Rivers to knee twists during the game, yet rallied to rock Indianapolis, 28-24.
The Chargers are hardly oblivious to the Patriots challenge ahead, especially with LT, Rivers, Gates and big NT Jamal Williams (ankle) all sitting out practice at midweek, not to mention expected temperatures in the low 20s for the Southern Californians.
''You appreciate getting an opportunity to play them,'' RB LaDainian Tomlinson said. ''We know how good they are. We played them obviously in Week 2, but we have played them in years past. And they've always been good. They've always kind of been that benchmark team that everybody looks to and so it's just a great opportunity to get a chance to play against possibly the greatest team to ever play.''
New England was first in overall, passing and scoring offense, fourth in overall and scoring defense, 10th in rushing defense and sixth in passing D in the regular season.
San Diego finished in the top 10 in rushing offense (seventh), scoring offense (fifth) and scoring defense (fifth). The Chargers were in the bottom 10 in passing offense (26th).
The Patriots fashioned a plus-19 turnover margin through 14 games before going minus-4 against, of all opponents, Miami — their only minus game of the season — before settling at plus-16. That was third-best in the NFL behind San Diego's plus-24 and Indianapolis' plus-18. Including their two playoff wins, the Chargers are a whopping plus-29 in their last 14 games. The Pats were plus-2 in their Divisional Round win over Jacksonville.
Brady finished first in any number of QB categories, among them completion percentage (68.9), yards (4,806), TD passes (50), TD drive percentage (42.3) and passer rating (117.2), and set an NFL record by completing 92.9 percent of his passes (26-of-28) against Jacksonville on Saturday.
WR Randy Moss' reemergence is quantified by his NFL-record 23 touchdown receptions. While Moss was second in the NFL with 1,493 receiving yards, Wes Welker was tied for first with 112 receptions. RB Laurence Maroney is coming off a 122-yard rushing game vs. the Jaguars.
Tomlinson came on strong in the second half to defend his NFL rushing-yardage and rushing-touchdown titles with 1,474 yards (4.7 yards per carry) and 15 touchdowns.
Antonio Cromartie, San Diego's second-year CB, led the NFL with 10 interceptions in the regular season and added an 11th in the upset of the Colts. Darren Sproles is the return X-factor in this game with one punt-return and one kickoff-return TD in the RS plus the 56-yard screen-pass TD from Rivers at Indy.
New England and San Diego squared off in Week 2 at Gillette, with the Patriots, in their home opener, rolling, 38-14, and holding a 407-201 yardage advantage as Brady completed 25 of 31 for three TDs, two to Moss.
The teams have twice in the playoffs in San Diego in two different eras. A year ago, the Pats came from behind for a 24-21 AFC Divisional Round win. In 1963 the Chargers crushed the Boston Patriots, 51-10 for the AFL Championship.
Before this season, the last time the Chargers played at Gillette went quite well — a 41-17 shellacking in 2005 when Tomlinson had 168 yards from scrimmage and two TDs. But all-time San Diego is 1-8 when playing in Foxboro, Mass.
The Patriots' all-time playoff record is 20-12, but under head coach Bill Belichick and Brady they are 13-2 since 2001 and prevailed in Super Bowls XXXVI, XXXVIII and XXXIX. The Chargers' all-time postseason record is 9-13 and they're 8-9 since the 1970 merger.
Lorenzo Neal, who played the 1997 season with the Jets, is San Diego's starting FB in his 15th pro season, returned to practice last week from a December broken leg, and could play Sunday. Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell followed a pattern similar to his time as the Jets' DC 2001-03 by getting his struggling stars playing up to potential down the stretch. Former Jets secondary coach Bill Bradley is the Chargers' DB boss.
Might Cottrell check in with Jets DC Bob Sutton this week? In the Patriots' 17 games this season, their vaunted offense had the toughest time against the Jets in Week 15, a 20-10 win in which they had season lows of one offensive touchdown, 20 points and 265 yards.
On the New England roster are several former Jets. TE Kyle Brady (first-round draft choice, 1996) contributes behind starter Benjamin Watson. DL Rashad Moore (2006) and S Raymond Ventrone (September final cut) were inactive vs. the Jags. Besides Belichick, former Jets players and coaches on the coaching staff include Pepper Johnson (defensive line) and Brad Seely (special teams).
Friday: Giants-Packers in the NFC Championship Game