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How to pull it off

Five things the Chargers need to shock the Patriots

Posted: Friday January 18, 2008 2:14PM; Updated: Saturday January 19, 2008 10:27PM
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LaDainian Tomlinson's hyperextended left knee appears to have improved steadily throughout the week.
LaDainian Tomlinson's hyperextended left knee appears to have improved steadily throughout the week.
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With no disrespect to the NFC's Giants-Packers undercard, top billing this weekend goes to the AFC's main event, where the surprising challengers from San Diego try to knock out the NFL's undefeated heavyweight, the Patriots of New England.

The NFL has never seen an 18-0 team. To keep Bill Belichick and Co. from scaling that historical peak, here are five things the Chargers need to pull one of biggest upsets ever:

1. LaDainian Tomlinson must be a difference-maker: He's got his MVP trophy. He's got his records, accolades and Pro Bowl berths. He was briefly known earlier in his career as the league's best player on a bad team. But this is by far the biggest game of LT's seven-year NFL experience, and in the playoffs, great players further their legend by stepping up when the stakes are the highest. Tomlinson is the greatest back in the NFL this decade, and if the Chargers have a chance, this has to be his showcase game.

Yes, San Diego won last week at Indianapolis without LT playing a large role. The odds of duplicating that feat are astronomical. The Chargers are his team, and they need him at his devastating best, hyper-extended knee or not.

They need him to gash New England with big plays in the running game and as a receiver, and maybe even throw a touchdown if he has to. They need him to put the entire San Diego offense on his back and carry it for as long as necessary. Most importantly, they need him to channel all that passion and anger he felt last January when the Patriots knocked the Chargers out of the playoffs, and transform it into the payback from hell.

2. A surprising contribution from an unsung player: If Philip Rivers (knee) can't start at quarterback, or if he leaves the game prematurely, the Chargers aren't in bad hands with Billy Volek under center. The guy's no slouch. If A.J. Feeley and Kyle Boller can hum the ball against the Patriots defense the way they did late in the season, Volek could pose real trouble. In 2004, Volek started eight games for Tennessee, and his 918 yards passing in one particular two-game stretch made him just the second player in NFL history to top 900 yards in a two-week span (joining Phil Simms, 1985). Volek's 2,789 yards passing in his first 10 career starts led all NFL quarterbacks since 1970.

As one AFC personnel man told me this week: "If Volek has to play, he'll scramble around and make some throws for San Diego. He's a very good backup in this league, because he's a guy who can go in and carry you for two or three games. Rivers is a better quarterback, but it's not a huge drop-off. Volek has some moxie to him. He's the son of a football coach. He's extremely bright and he knows where to go with the football. He plays within his abilities, and he's a better athlete than people give him credit for.''

Watching Volek last week on the game-winning drive against Indy, I got the feeling he didn't know he wasn't supposed to be doing that to a Colts defense that had looked so superb all season. Rather than the high-strung Rivers, maybe he's just the guy to handle the suffocating atmosphere of Gillette Stadium in January.

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