Patriots, Chargers each want to boogie to NFL's 'big dance'

Glen Farley

Their last postseason meeting resulted in a postgame dance to which a number of folks in San Diego took exception.

When the Chargers and Patriots meet at Gillette Stadium today (3 p.m.: Channels 4 and 12; WBCN-104.1 FM), they’ll be vying to advance to the NFL’s “big dance.”

“We’re 17-0 and that’s great,” quarterback Tom Brady said after his NFL record-setting passing performance (26-of-28, 92.9 percent) in New England’s 31-20 AFC divisional playoff win over Jacksonville at Gillette last weekend, “but it all comes down to this week.”

A win over the Chargers in today’s AFC Championship Game will keep the Patriots perfect and advance them to Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 3.

A win by the underdog (and perhaps undermanned) Chargers would advance them to their first Super Bowl since No. XXIX and more than avenge their 24-21 divisional-round loss to New England at Qualcomm Stadium when San Diego players found Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs’ version of “Dancing with the Stars” – his postgame impression of Chargers outside linebacker Shawne Merriman’s “Lights Out” dance on the team logo at midfield – downright offensive.

The Patriots have been extremely offensive this season.

The Pats’ 589 points erased the previous NFL-record 556 points in a season the Minnesota Vikings posted in 1998 and featured a league-record 50 touchdown passes by Brady and a league-record 23 TD receptions by wide receiver Randy Moss.

“Bill’s known as a defensive guy,” Chargers head coach Norv Turner said of his Patriots counterpart, Bill Belichick, “but what they’ve done with this offense and the way they’ve kind of taken the league by storm … Everyone knows that New England right now is playing the best football in the league and it’s going to be a real challenge for us.”      

The real challenge for a Patriots team that is stingy with turnovers (a league-low 15 during the regular season; none against the Jaguars last weekend) will be a Chargers team that thrives on them (a league-leading 48 during the regular season; five in two postseason games).

“They lead the league in turnovers,” Patriots wide receiver Jabar Gaffney pointed out, “and when they get the ball they usually win. We’ve got to keep it and not give it to them.”

In last Sunday’s 28-24 divisional playoff win in Indianapolis, the Chargers survived a 402-yard passing attack by picking off Peyton Manning twice and recovering a fumble by wide receiver Marvin Harrison.

“It’s remarkable the things we’ve done defensively,” Turner said. “The ball goes up in the air and we have a lot of good athletes back there and it seems like one guy tips it and it goes up in the air and one of our guys finds a way to get it.

“The combination of being able to pressure the quarterback, get pressure and create some errant throws and then our guys rallying to the ball to get it … We have a bunch of guys back there that really could play on offenses as receivers.”

The two teams met once this regular season, back on Sept. 16, with the Patriots overpowering the Chargers, 38-14.

On the one hand, that Week Two win came long before the Chargers got their act together under Turner, who replaced Marty Schottenheimer following last season’s postseason loss to the Patriots.

On the other hand, it came when running back LaDainian Tomlinson (knee), quarterback Philip Rivers (injuries to both knees) and tight end Antonio Gates (dislocated toe) were a whole lot healthier than they are today. While Tomlinson is fully expected to start today, the conditions of Rivers, Gates and even defensive tackle Jamal Williams (ankle) are less certain.

Jolted by their injuries in the backfield, the Bolts were forced to rely on a cast headlined by Michael Turner, Darren Sproles and Billy Volek last Sunday – a crew one would be more likely to see getting snaps in the second half of a preseason game rather than a postseason matchup to advance to the conference championship.

This afternoon, with assorted body parts aching, the warm-weather Chargers face the prospects of having to deal with a cold shoulder in frigid Foxboro where 20-degree temperatures and wind gusts reaching 30 miles per hour are expected to sink the wind chill down into single digits.

But if neither last week’s casualties nor a 1-3 start to Turner’s first season as their head coach could stop the Chargers, why would a chill in the air, particularly when the ultimate prize is now in sight?

“I’m from Florida. I can handle the weather. They’ll handle the weather,” Patriots fullback Heath Evans said.

“I’ve said it before. Sometimes we wish we could play the weather, because that’s pretty easy to beat. You can get warm. It’s playing a tough team like this that’s going to create the issues."

The Enterprise