How do you stop the Chargers?
FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots won a playoff game for the fourth straight season, becoming the only NFL team to accomplish that feat since 2003. In fact, the team's three straight years with at least one playoff win from 2003-2005 was also unmatched.
Now they look to go deeper in the playoffs with a major test in San Diego. This week's mailbag has a variety of topics, but it starts with a question that seems to be prevalent on the minds of several fans: How do you stop the Chargers' offense? How do you stop NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson?
We'll get right to it this week.
I was wondering what you think the Patriots' gameplan will be to stop LaDainian Tomlinson? Do you think they may try an approach similar to the one they used against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, where they chipped Marshall Faulk and the receivers to disrupt timing? If they frustrate the Chargers' offense and its timing, I think the Pats have a great shot to pull the upset.
Ian Lindsay, Manchester, Conn.
A: I do think they may try the approach from Super Bowl XXXVI when looking at the passing game, as Tomlinson has 56 catches for 508 yards. While I wouldn't minimize his impact as a receiver, Tomlinson is most lethal running the ball, as evidenced by his 1,815 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns. So when I start to formulate thoughts on how the Patriots will game-plan to stop the Chargers, it starts with the front seven playing sound in their assignments and making the proper fits in the running game out of their 3-4 set. I wouldn't expect an exotic scheme, just a focus on execution and a reliance on the defensive line to control gaps in the running game.
After watching this last game against the Jets, I think the Patriots are still peaking, getting better each week, much like the Patriots of past championship years. Do you agree? What do you think is the best matchup the Patriots have against the Chargers and what is the best matchup the Chargers have against the Patriots?
W. Yee, Monson
A: I think the best matchup for the Chargers is probably linebacker Shawne Merriman in the pass rush against the Patriots' protection, which would be left tackle Matt Light in a one-on-one situation. I would expect a lot of assistance from tight end Daniel Graham in that area. My feeling on the Patriots' best matchup is their defensive front against the Chargers' offensive line. While the Chargers have a solid line, the Patriots' defensive front is probably the best in football right now. Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren have been unstoppable at times and they are the key to this game in my opinion.
Mike, I've been rooting to play San Diego over the Ravens. Wonder if you concur? I think we may match up better. The Pats stop the run, especially if that's their focus, like it would be against San Diego. Stop Tomlinson and make Rivers make the plays. On offense I think we'll move the ball on them. San Diego can put heat on the QB, but the answer is to put Brady in the shotgun with 3 or 4 wide. Block Merriman and Shaun Phillips. I think the San Diego secondary is mediocre and they play the type of zone D that Brady picks apart. We move the ball and stop Tomlinson and we can win. Baltimore is like the Miami D on steroids. I think we'd have problems there. The secondary is great with Chris McAlister, Ed Reed, Samari Rolle. Their offense, with Steve McNair, scares me in big games. They have some receiver targets and run a little and pass a little - nothing particular to focus on defensively. I'll take our chances and like our chances with SD.
Jim K., Northford, Conn.
A: Both are extremely tough matchups, but if forced to choose one team I'd rather play, it would be the Chargers. The reason is the quarterback factor. Philip Rivers has been terrific this year, but he's still an unknown in playoff action. I think quarterback play is the one key that trumps all in the playoffs. As for what intrigues me most about this matchup: Bill Belichick has said in the past that if a team wants to take away one aspect of an opponent's game, it can often be done, but it weakens you in other areas. So assuming the Patriots choose to take away Tomlinson, I'm first curious to see if they can succeed, and then how the Chargers counter with the other players around Tomlinson, starting with Rivers.
Will Rodney Harrison play against San Diego this weekend? What are the chances?
A: Bill Belichick was asked on Monday, and didn't rule him out. Harrison was ruled out of the Jets' game on the Wednesday before the contest. My hunch is that he won't play.
Sorry to bring the negativity, but I'm not one of the many fans celebrating the win over the Jets. Call me spoiled, but I expect this team to beat the Jets. The real competition is coming. My fear is that fans will become complacent with being competitive and forget how management and ownership squandered numerous opportunities to strengthen this year's Super Bowl run. If the Pats win it all, then shame on me for ever doubting Scott, Bill and the Krafts. But should they fall short, they should be held accountable for the horrific 2006 offseason. We should not by force-fed competitive mediocrity while millions in cap space gets squandered.
A: Wow. I'm not saying the Patriots had a great offseason after losing Deion Branch and Adam Vinatieri, but a 12-4 season and advancing to the round of eight despite being one of the league's most injured teams would be considered a success in most NFL cities. I don't think that's competitive mediocrity. I also think this underestimates how hard it is to win it all in the NFL. And as for the millions in cap space, I've been doing some research on this area and believe I've uncovered some interesting information in regards to the team's cap spending that sheds a little bit of a different light on things. Because the team had such high cash spending the previous two years -- with the top-level Tom Brady and Richard Seymour deals leading the way -- the Patriots project to be one of a handful of teams who will actually be penalized by the league as part of the new CBA, and I believe will lose some cap space in a future season (possibly 2007) because of that. The Colts are also part of the small handful of teams who I think will be penalized; it's sort of like the luxury tax in baseball. I believe the Patriots would do a service to their fans by explaining this intricacy of the salary cap -- assuming I have it correct -- because I sense there is a perception out there that the team is not spending compared to other teams. In actuality, they've spent to a level that is actually going to penalize them.
Did you see anyone injured in Sunday's game? If not, except for Harrison, it feels like the team is finally getting healthy.
Jason, Derwood, Md.
A: I didn't see anything that appeared too serious, although linebacker Mike Vrabel appears to be playing in significant pain due to his back, so I wouldn't take it too far on the getting-healthy front.
Does Scott Pioli's rejection of the New York Giants suggest any changes in Bill Belichick's status as coach and/or GM in 2007?
Scott Cooley, Centerport, NY
A: No, I don't think the decision is related to that. We already know that 2006 is not the last year of Bill Belichick's contract -- and we also know that Pioli signed a contract extension for an undisclosed length of time in July of 2005 -- so I don't see a firm connection here with Pioli's decision. More than anything, I think Pioli feels he has a good situation in a business where stability is hard to come by. Seven years in the same place is an eternity in the NFL. Consider that the Scott Pioli/Bill Belichick tandem (7 years) is currently the second longest tenured personnel chief/head coach duo in the NFL -- behind the Ravens' Ozzie Newsome and Brian Billick (8 years). Also, Pioli's wife, Dallas, bounced around to various locations as a child as her father, Bill Parcells, moved to different jobs. So I think they both probably appreciate being able to be in New England for what is an extended period of time for those in this profession.
I am absolutely beside myself right now. I don't know why it bothers me so much, but how in the world does Shawne Merriman get voted to the Pro Bowl and as an All-Pro? The man was doing a little more than taking his Flintstone vitamins, yet no one besides me and a buddy of mine seems to care? Why?
Keith Manning, New York, NY
A: My understanding of those Pro Bowl and All-Pro awards is that off-field transgressions aren't part of the consideration. So those who vote are solely basing it on the on-field production, and Merriman has had another excellent year. If the parameters changed -- and voters were instructed to include a morals-type of thinking when selecting the team -- I think you'd have a strong case here that Merriman shouldn't be a pick. But based on the production, it's hard to argue.
James Sanders seems to be playing a lot better at safety. Will he be a starter when Rodney returns? Artrell Hawkins looked very slow chasing the receiver on the Jets' 77-yard TD -- even Vrabel was outrunning him.
Patrick Sullivan, Palmyra
A: If Harrison were to return, I think he would start alongside Hawkins, as we saw in Tennessee in the season finale. Sanders is doing a nice job at safety, but I wouldn't sit Hawkins based on that one play against the Jets. He's been a valuable presence in the secondary.
Consider the following on Asante Samuel: 1) His "pick 6" vs. the Jets was very similar to Ty Law's pick vs. Peyton Manning in the 2004 AFC Championship. Let the sideline route go the safety and turned inside, a play that shows considerable game smarts; 2) He's 26, never had a serious injury, and been tutored by Ty and Rodney Harrison; 3) Based on his growing rep, he shouldn't get as many penalties called going forward as he has in the past. What do you think the Pats should do and will do as far as re-signing him?
KB, New Canaan, Conn.
A: I remember talking with Pioli this offseason for a piece on team-building, and he mentioned how there is a mix between being proactive and reactive in the process. In the case of Samuel, I believe the Patriots are now in the reactive phase because Samuel's market has increased since the start of the season. Had the Patriots been more proactive before the season about extending his contract -- when most probably didn't consider him a No. 1 corner -- I think there would be a better chance Samuel would remain a Patriot. Instead, I think it's more likely that he'll hit free agency and get a big payday. There is also the possibility of placing the franchise tag on him to retain his rights, although I'd put that as more remote. As for what the Patriots should do, my answer would be to extend as far as they can in their team-building approach to keep Samuel, while not going too far where it would cost them depth in other areas.
First, for the record, although the Pats were impressive in discarding the Jets, the Colts will win the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl as they relish in their underdog role. As for the Pats and Samuel, why can't more of these guys follow the Tedy Bruschi creed: recognize you're already a millionaire and living a great life, so why on earth would you want to leave the best team and town just so you can say you're making $4 million instead of $2 million, $6 million instead of $4 million, or $8 million instead of $6 million? Are their egos really so huge that they can't see the questions that really matter in life?
Kevin Quirk, Charlottesville, Va.
A: I can't blame players for trying to maximize dollars, as their careers are short and now is the time to cash in. And what's important to one player might not be important to the next, so it's hard to lump them all together in this regard. It's interesting to talk to players in the locker room and most of the time they are encouraging their fellow players to get what they can, when they can. The next time I hear a player say he wishes a player took less to stay will be the first.
I'm glad we have another week of great anticipation. I see the Pats are 15-0 in the playoffs when leading at the half and the overall record is 18-11. That leaves the Pats with 3-11 when not leading at the half. What's the breakout between being tied at the half and trailing at the half?
A: The Patriots are 2-9 in playoff games in which they've trailed at the half, and both of the victories are over the Raiders. On Jan. 5, 1986, the Patriots trailed the Los Angeles Raiders 20-17 before winning 27-20 in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. On Jan. 19, 2002, the Patriots trailed the Oakland Raiders 7-0 at the half before coming back to win the Snow Bowl in overtime, 16-13. Of the three playoff games that have been tied at the half, the Patriots are 1-2, with losses to the Broncos (1986) and Browns (coached by Bill Belichick in 1994) and a win over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. That Super Bowl was tied at 7 at the half.
When was the last time a Patriots player returned a kickoff for a TD in Foxborough prior to Ellis Hobbs in Week 15 vs. the Texans?
Gregg Lafferty, Bristol, Conn.
A: Checking the Patriots' media guide, it looks like the answer is Dec. 22, 2002, when Kevin Faulk returned a kickoff 87 yards for a score against the Jets. Both of Bethel Johnson's kickoff returns for touchdowns were on the road, at Indianapolis and at Cleveland.
It occurs to me that Kevin Faulk steps up his game during the playoffs every single year. He seems to have such a limited role during the season, and gets very little ink, but always manages to come up big when the playoffs start. Is it my imagination, or do you think Faulk just plays better during the playoffs? Every year I look for him to be traded, but each year at playoff time, I think I see why coach Belichick wants him around.
Bruce, Panama City, Fla.
A: Faulk is a valuable member of the team, whether it's playoffs or the regular season. He has excelled this season in a third-down role. When Packers defensive coordinator Bob Sanders was breaking down the challenges of game-planning against the Patriots last week, he noted the presence of Faulk by saying: "When he's out on the field, it's like having another receiver, because he runs such precise pass routes." Faulk has played in 12 career postseason games and has 58 rushes for 297 yards (impressive 5.1-yard average) and 22 catches for 189 yards and a touchdown. Those are solid stats and an indication that he does raise his play in the playoffs.
What do you think of Ben Watson's performance? I think he was definitely rusty and he ended up getting away with another one of those bounces right out of his arms and into the arms of a defender because the guy was two feet to the right instead of the left. I'm for benching him and going with David Thomas. Watson is having a mixed year were the good is often offset by the very bad. Are his blocking skills that much better than Thomas to make my suggestion impractical?
A: If I had to sum up Watson's season, I'd say inconsistent would be the word. I wouldn't go as far as benching him in favor of Thomas, especially at this juncture of the season. Watson is more of a matchup threat to defenses, and has more experience in the playoffs. He's also a more experienced blocker. I'd stick with him.
Where is Junior Seau now, Foxborough or San Diego? Would Junior get a Super Bowl ring if the Pats run the table? If not, do you think he would be more likely to help out the Pats or Chargers with insight (i.e. where are his loyalties)? He is in a unique position to help either team with some insider perspective.
Dave McGregor, Montpelier, Vt.
A: Two weeks ago, Rodney Harrison, one of Seau's close friends, mentioned that Seau was in San Diego. As for if he would get a ring should the Patriots win the Super Bowl, the answer is yes. He is still a member of the team per his contract, collecting a paycheck, and he played in 11 games, making a significant contribution to the team's season. Because he's under contract to the Patriots, I would say his allegiances clearly are with New England.
Earlier this year, I thought the Patriots would not have any key players up for free agency this offseason. However, Daniel Graham, Samuel, and even Tully Banta-Cain have become key parts of this team. Do you see the Patriots making serious efforts to sign these guys? Or should the fans get ready for another exodus of talent in 2007?
A: I'd say the Patriots have already made some efforts, as there were contract talks on extensions for Samuel and Graham that didn't yield results. If I had to predict right now, I'd say Graham and Banta-Cain will return, while Samuel I'd be less certain of right now.
I noticed Troy Brown ran out on the field before the team on Sunday and I was just wondering if that was because it was his last home game?
Jeff Moore, Washington, DC
A: If Brown has made that decision, he wasn't sharing it earlier this year. He was asked about his career plans and said he was going day to day. My feeling is that he was probably running onto the field to loosen up and possibly field a few punts.
What can you tell us about LT's visor? I heard somewhere it's the only dark one in the league and there's some exception. Can you explain? Thanks
Luke, Cottage Farm
A: One newspaper reporter from San Diego mentioned that Tomlinson has light sensitivity issues and can get migraines if sun gets into his eyes.
In today's article you said the reason for the Chad Pennington fumble (on the ball batted down by Rosevelt Colvin) was "because it was behind the line of scrimmage." This is wrong. The reason it was a fumble is because Pennington was passing it backwards. The line of scrimmage is irrelevant.
Tony Serino, Somerville
A: You're right, Tony. We corrected that online on Monday morning and planned to correct it in the newspaper as well. The play was a fumble because the play wasn't a forward pass.
Just looking at your skill-position players in Sunday's rout of the Jets, you remark that Troy Brown, who will set the record for most post-season appearances this Sunday against the Chargers, saw less time in the 2-wide sets. Why do you think that happened? How much did Troy play on defense on Sunday? I did not see him out there much.
A: Brown didn't play defense against the Jets. As for why Jabar Gaffney had more opportunities in two-wide sets, I'm assuming it's a result of wanting to get a little more speed and size on the outer edges of the field as the team was keeping its tight ends in to block a good portion of the time. Working the outer edges of the field appeared to be a big part of the team's plan, especially early on some out patterns.
What do you think of Chad Jackson's performance Sunday? I think he did a good job breaking up two potential interceptions on well-short throws to him. It was disappointing to see that those two balls were the only ones thrown his way.
Vincent Gumbo, Washington
A: I only saw Jackson on the field for three snaps, so it was hard to say much about his performance. He did do a nice job to break up that one pass, which could have been an interception. Otherwise, it was too small a sample to make a judgment on.
Why don't you include linemen in your offensive participation stats on the blog? They have feelings too ya know.
Mike Valerio, Rohnert Park, Calif.
A: The linemen played the whole game, as they most often do. The Patriots sometimes rotate right tackles, but the participation is pretty much a constant, with each linemen going wire to wire.
I love your "offensive participation" stats on the blog. Any chance you could do that with the defense as well?
A: Thanks for checking out those stats; I enjoy putting them together and following them. I tried to do the defense for one game, but couldn't keep up during the action. The offensive participation is a bit easier because you're really only charting five skill position players.