It's Week 2 of the 2011 season and the New England Patriots are very early favorites after the 38 point demolition of the Miami Dolphin's defense last Monday. But this week they face the San Diego Chargers, a perennial AFC opponent that the Patriots certainly do not take lightly, as Coach Bill Belichick expressed in his press conference earlier this week.
"It feels like we're back in the division again," he said. "We've had a lot of games against the Chargers here in the past and as usual they've got a real good football team...Really, they're pretty strong across the board. They're a tough team to get ready for - Norv does a great job offensively with the usage of his talent and all the different formations and looks they give you, but they're very sound. You have to play well against these guys - they're a good football team."
Tom Brady, despite coming off the best passing game of his career and being named AFC Offensive Player of the Week, is also aware that there is a lot of work to be done before they are ready to win against the Chargers at home in Gillette Stadium.
" [We] play against a team that's one of the most talented teams in the league every year...they have great players at every position," Brady said. "They have good corners, good safeties, linebackers, veteran defense. I think they run quite a few different looks for the offense. It's a short week for us too and guys in here are kind of walking around a little stiff, a little tight. We have to move on from last week's game and really get working hard on these guys."
The Patriots have faced the Chargers eight times since 2001, and have won five of those; including winning both postseason meetings, once in the divisional round and once for the AFC Championship. But last year's 23-20 win in San Diego was one they eked out with a late field goal, and the Charger's consistently have top ranks in both offense and defense.
So with all the history these two teams have, here are five things to watch for in the Patriot's second regular season game.
1. The Patriots secondary -- Once again these guys have a chance to come up big for the Pats' defense. Philip Rivers threw two interceptions last week against the Minnesota Vikings, due in part to their ability to stifle the San Diego running game. Rivers is one of the most dynamic passers in the league, but he also has a tendency to force balls when consistently pressured. Fullback Mike Tolbert caught nine balls last week, but is questionable to play in Foxboro. If he does not play, this still leaves a menacing receiving core of Malcom Floyd, Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gate. Watch for a lot of nickel defensive packages, with the Pat Chung and the safeties covering Gates down the middle, McCourty on Vincent Jackson and Leigh Bodden (if healthy) covering Malcom Floyd.
2. Takeo Spikes -- Two-time Pro-Bowler Spikes is still a defensive force for the Chargers at the age of 34, and had 11 tackles in week one. Patriots' rookie offensive tackle Nate Solder fended off Cameron Wake pretty well last week, but Wake eventually managed to outwork the young guy and get solid pressure on Brady. Spikes is older and less explosive these days, but has experience and systemic knowledge that might be troublesome for the youth on the O-line in front of TB12. Brady's reliable center Dan Koppen is out with a broken ankle and will be replaced by Dan Connolly, and Sebastian Vollmer is still questionable with back issues. Even with reliable veterans Logan Mankins and Matt Light, these injuries leave the offensive line with weaknesses that Spikes and the Chargers defense will be looking to exploit.
3. Chad Ochocino -- I'm going to keep putting him on the watch list until something changes. And it's bound to change eventually. Despite verbal thrashings from legendary Patriots-turned-broadcasters Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison, Ochocinco has been calm and quiet, asserting that he won't make comments to the media until he has learned the playbook to a satisfactory level for himself and his teammates. The reservation and respect for his organization that he has shown offers some indication that this is a guy who has not given up on himself. Nobody wants to waste the opportunity to be on the receiving end of Tom Brady's passes, and don't think that Ochocinco is any exception to that.
4. Julian Edelman -- Maybe it's because we were all reminded of Edelman's return brilliance during his breakout in 2009 when it aired on Belichick: A Football Life this past Thursday. In any case, there were 8 returns (five punts, three kickoffs) for touchdowns last week, setting an NFL record for any week ever. It looks like the new kickoff rule has actually had the opposite of the anticipated effect, and Julian Edelman is more than capable of capitalizing on the trend. His role on the team has been mostly reduced to special teams on punt and kick returns, and you can bet that the spitfire Welker- clone will take this opportunity seriously. With the rule still so new, special teams cores around the league are still vulnerable and Edelman is a talented returner.
5. Tom Brady's home win-streak -- Brady has not lost a home game since Nov. 12, 2006, against the New York Jets. The Chargers are a solid team, but they are coming off a season in which they led the league in both offense and defense and still only went 8-8. Their win last week came over a quarterback that only threw for 39 yards and an interception. That's one-thirteenth of Brady's week one yardage total. The Vikings amassed just 187 total yards and had possession of the ball for a measly 22:43, and still the game was tied at 17-17 late in the 4th quarter; until Rivers hit Mike Tolbert for the back's third touchdown on the day. This is not the team that I envision breaking Brady's streak.
Tanya's prediction: New England Patriots 34, San Diego Chargers 21.