San Diego Chargers (13-5) +14, 49 O/U at New England Patriots (17-0) -14, 49 O/U, Gillette Stadium, 3 PM Eastern, Sunday
by Badger of Predictem.com
The San Diego Chargers will be the next team in line to try and knock off the undefeated New England Patriots and tarnish their perfect season when the two teams meet in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., on Sunday.
For the Patriots it was business as usual last weekend, eliminating the Jacksonville Jaguars in a divisional playoff game, 31-20. The victory followed the same script that most of the Patriots games of late have followed - a little tighter than most experts expected throughout the contest, with the Pats applying the knockout blow late in the fourth quarter to put it away for good.
San Diego on the other hand turned in one of the biggest upsets in recent NFL playoff history, dropping the heavily favored Indianapolis Colts in their divisional playoff game, 28-24. The Chargers once again tricked Indy quarterback Peyton Manning into several costly interceptions in the second half, and then hung on for dear life as the Colts failed on two possessions late in the final quarter to try and score a late comeback win.
The oddsmakers in Las Vegas opened the AFC Championship with the Patriots as a 14.5-point favorite, with a 49.5 over/under total.
Once again New England quarterback Tom Brady was spectacular on the big stage. He threw for 262 yards on 26-of-28 passing and three touchdowns in the victory over the Jags. More importantly for the Pats though, running back Laurence Maroney was able to balance the offensive attack and keep the Jaguars defense off balance with an impressive 122-yard rushing day and one score on the ground.
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Overall the Patriots first game in the postseason looked very similar to their season averages offensively (403 total yards - 411 season ave.; 31 pts. - 36.8 pts. season ave.), so even the highly respected Jaguars defense was unable to stop the locomotive that is the Patriots with Brady as the engineer. Theres no reason to think the Chargers will have an answer for Brady this week either, as the Pats offense doesn’t look like it will be stopped until it goes 19-0.
The big question in regards to the Chargers offense coming into the AFC title game is who is going to be healthy enough to play. Both quarterback Phillip Rivers and running back LaDainian Tomlinson failed to finish the game versus the Colts last week (both knee injuries), as backup QB Billy Volek actually scored the game-winning TD on a sneak late in the fourth quarter. Tight end Antonio Gates played, but was clearly limited due to a toe injury and was pretty much a non-factor (2 catches for 28 yards).
Without their three biggest weapons the Chargers don’t have much of a chance, although Tomlinson is listed as probable and Rivers as questionable early in the week. Ironically, it was backups Michael Turner (71 yards rushing on 17 carries), Darren Sproles (56 yard TD catch on a screen pass) and Volek (3-of-4 passing, 48 yards) that rallied the Bolts to the divisional playoff win. Its hard to imagine the Bolts offense sustaining much of a fight versus the Patriots if they have to play with all of the backups for most of the game this week.
The Patriots defense, which most people thought was susceptible to the powerful running game of the Jags going into the game, held strong at the point of attack. They held Jacksonville to just 80 yards on 22 carries (only 47 yards by Fred Taylor, just 19 yards for Maurice Jones-Drew), forcing quarterback David Garrard to beat them with his arm. Garrard plays a strong game (278 yds., 2 TD’s), but was unable to play catch up once the Jags fell behind by double digits in the fourth quarter. The biggest problem for the Pats defense this week will be trying to figure out who to prepare for, as the defensive game plan will be much different if its the Rivers- Tomlinson combo or the Volek-Turner-Sproles one.
Once again the Chargers defense was superb in containing the Colts and Manning. Manning still threw for 402 yards, but they played deep zones most of the game and forced him to throw check downs to the running backs and short routes over the middle. They were also extremely effective and stopping the run, limiting the Colts to just 44 yards and making them one dimensional without a ground game. The big question for the Bolts defense is can they somehow pull off the trickery again this week. The Pats offensive line is better than the Colts, so if they sit back and try and keep everything in front of them, Brady will likely pick them apart. Blitz and you run the risk of turning it into a blowout.
These two teams already met in week two this season, a 38-14 victory for the Patriots in Foxboro. Brady threw for 279 yards and three TD’s as the Pats rolled to a 24-0 lead at halftime, allowing them to cover the number easily as they were only 3.5-point favorites early in the season. The game also went over the 46 total.
Last week the Patriots once again failed to cover the spread (-13.5), while they pushed on the total of 51. The Chargers continued to cash in for bettors, covering for the eighth game in a row, but their first as an underdog in those eight covers. The game also went over the final total of 46.
Its hard to get a good read on the spread since it won’t move until later in the week once the Chargers injury report is released. The total has already dropped at most places down to 47.5, especially at the offshore sportsbooks, since the projected weather forecast calls for 15 degrees and high winds in Foxboro on Sunday.
Badgers Pick: Even if the Chargers were 100 percent healthy, I’d still have a hard time picking them to challenge the Pats in this game. Look for the Bolts to once again play inspired football on defense, but in the end the Pats offense will wear them down and cover the big number late in the game. Lock the total in early and take the under, as the Chargers won’t be able to put up much offense without all of their guns. Take the under, and the Patriots to cover minus the points.