Here are 10 matchups worth keeping an eye on when the Patriots meet the Chargers in New England’s home opener on Sunday afternoon:
Tom Brady against the San Diego pass defense: There probably won’t be 517 yards this week against the Chargers -- San Diego held Minnesota’s Donovan McNabb to just 28 passing yards last week. The Chargers have a superior pass defense to Miami, with good corners (Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer) and safeties (Bob Sanders and Eric Weddle), as well as excellent pressure off the edge. However, when you break down the one-on-one matchups (particularly at the skill positions for New England), the Patriots’ passing game has an edge on the San Diego pass defense. Like I said, there won’t be 517 yards, but barring something strange, a 300-plus yard performance should be in order for the reigning NFL MVP.
Philip Rivers against Bill Belichick: You could make an argument that the Rivers-Belichick matchup has a lot of the same earmarks as the one between Belichick and Peyton Manning, circa 2001-2004: Rivers is an excellent young quarterback who has had little trouble lighting up the rest of the league, but more often than not, hasn’t been able to get over the hump when it comes to figuring out a Belichick defense. Rivers has played three regular season games and two playoff games against the Patriots, and has a career mark of 1-4 against New England with a 59 percent completion percentage and just as many interceptions (six) and touchdown passes. Belichick might not be “in his head” (let’s face it -- if Marlon McCree doesn’t get stripped by Troy Brown and San Diego has any semblance of a special teams, Rivers could be over .500 against the Patriots), but it’s clear that Rivers still doesn’t have it quite figured out yet.
Chad Ochocinco against expectations: All eyes will be on No. 85 to see how Ochocinco responds to an interesting week, where his postgame Tweet in the wake of the win over Miami drew the ire of some former Patriots. Ochocinco didn’t talk with reporters all week, but has the support of those in the locker room, both on and off the record. Odds are that he’ll play more than the 18 snaps that he did in the season opener against Miami -- how many more snaps and what sort of impact he could have against the Chargers remains to be seen.
Ryan Mathews/Mike Tolbert against Albert Haynesworth/Vince Wilfork: The San Diego running game isn’t going to worry anyone, but the Chargers are going to want to do just enough running to keep the Patriots defensive front honest. The New England defense did a very good job bottling up Miami’s Reggie Bush when the game was still in the balance on Monday, and while San Diego has a better offensive line than the Dolphins, the Patriots should likely be able to do the same Sunday against the Mathews/Tolbert combo platter.
Anyone against Antonio Gates: While the Patriots’ tight ends present matchup nightmares, the same is true for San Diego’s No. 1 offensive option. Gates has always drawn nothing but respect from New England, which often used double coverage the last time the two teams met last season -- Gates had a bad toe injury, but he still caught four passes for 50 yards and a touchdown despite the fact that he was playing essentially on one leg. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound Gates is likely too big to be a good matchup for New England’s smallish safeties (other than maybe the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Josh Barrett), so look for the Patriots to try and utilize a combination of Barrett and Gary Guyton, Dane Fletcher and A.J. Edds, three linebackers whose strength is in pass coverage.
Devin McCourty against Vincent Jackson: The Patriots corner was thrown at an awful lot in the regular season opener against the Dolphins -- according to Pro Football Focus, no player was thrown at more than Devin McCourty. The second-year corner out of Rutgers, who spent a sizable chunk of the night going against the beastly Brandon Marshall, was targeted 15 times by the Dolphins and allowed nine receptions for 151 yards. He should be in for a busy afternoon against Jackson, an equally beastly receiver who has nine catches for 187 yards in two regular-season games against the Patriots.
Deion Branch against Quentin Jammer: Yeah, that talk about Branch being in trouble because he didn’t have a single catch in the preseason? Not so much. On Monday, Branch had seven catches for 93 yards, and four of them ended up going for first downs. Bottom line is that when Brady looked to move the chains in key situations against the Dolphins, he went to his buddy Deion, who ran great in cuts and slants across the middle of the field. Jammer is a bigger, more physical corner (6-foot, 204), which means he’ll try and get handsy with Branch (5-foot-9, 195) off the line in hopes of trying to disrupt his routes by, well ... jamming him off the line.
Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez against the San Diego pass defense: The Miami defense had no idea -- and I mean absolutely no clue -- how to defend Gronkowski and Hernandez on Monday. Against the Dolphins, the two combined for 13 catches for 189 yards and two touchdowns. (According to Nuggetpalooza, since 2003, only one NFL team has had more than 189 receiving yards from the tight end position.) You can try and cover Gronkowski with a linebacker, but Hernandez is a tight end in a wide receivers body, so he should really be checked by a defensive back. If that happens, this opens up opportunities for other New England pass catchers. Ultimately, San Diego could split the difference by using a safety, which should mean an interesting challenge for Eric Weddle and Bob Sanders.
Dan Connolly against Antonio Garay: Connolly will be stepping in for injured starter Dan Koppen, and has proven to be a dependable presence when he’s played over the last few seasons. However, he will be facing the Chargers best defensive lineman in Garay (according to our pals at Pro Football Focus, Garay followed up his amazing +27.9 PFF rating in 2010 with a sack and two QB pressures in Week One). Connolly, who played right guard for a sizable portion of the season opener, helped out rookie right tackle Nate Solder blunting Miami sack artist Cameron Wake. You have to figure that Connolly will get some help from guards Logan Mankins and Brian Waters on the former Boston College star Garay.
Scotty O’Brien against Rich Bisaccia: The battle between the two special teams units (and their respective coaches) will go a long way toward determining the outcome. The Patriots have been able to gain a decided edge the last few times these two teams have met on special teams, particularly last season. In a 23-20 win for the Patriots, the Chargers blew an onside kick, were flagged for false start penalty on a what would have been a possible game-tying field goal and yielded a 34-yard punt return by Julian Edelman. (For the 2010 season, San Diego allowed four punt or kick return touchdowns and had four punts blocked last season, both NFL-high totals.) Things didn’t start on any sort of a better note in the season opener for the Chargers special teamers, who yielded a 103-yard kick return for a touchdown on the first play of the game (starting kicker Nate Kaeding suffered a torn ACL on the return, which will put him on the shelf all season. With the exception of a missed 48-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, the New England special teams unit looked solid in its opener against the Dolphins -- could be a big opportunity for Julian Edelman, who appears to have solidified the job of both punt and kick returner, at least for the moment.