Sunday, January 20, 2008

Pregame jitters

Well, sure, of course I'm nervous. Nervous that Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips will get their share of cracks at Tom Brady, especially since Matt Light and Nick Kaczur both had a touch of flu this week. Nervous that Darren Sproles will blow past the Pats' aging linebackers just as he did against Indy's faster unit a week ago. Nervous that Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson will win more than their share of jump balls against the Pats' shrimpy cornerbacks.

Nervous about the impossibly high stakes of this game, and the legacy as the Undisputed Greatest Team Ever that depends upon a victory today and another in two weeks. I want this so bad I can feel it. I can't imagine how wild this must be for the players.

But mostly it's those good kind of nerves, the ones you have when you're on the brink of something special or fun or meaningful. You'd think we'd become jaded after watching the Pats make it to five AFC championship games this decade, that playing for a trip to the Super Bowl wouldn't seem as special as it did in, say, '96 or '01. Yet after all this team has accomplished in the Bill Belichick Era, I'm glad to report that making it to this moment and anticipating what's to come still gets the butterflies dancing in the belly.

Besides, it's a mistake to confuse nervousness with a lack of confidence. While you have to respect the Chargers, not only for what they did to the Colts last weekend but for the depth of talent on their roster, I can't convince myself that a team coached by Norv Turner and quarterbacked by Billy Volek or the insufferable Philip Rivers is going to win a big game against Bill Belichick and Brady. The Patriots have an enormous advantage at head coach and quarterback. I imagine you probably knew that, huh?

And while it's natural to be nervous about those potential plot twists I mentioned in the first paragraph, the truth is the Chargers have much, much more to be worried about. With Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson looking iffy, the offense could be without its two best playmakers, though I have to admit I have major questions about LT's toughness after he missed the rest of the Indy game with what turned out to be a minor injury. There are no questions about the toughness of the Chargers' defense - but there are plenty about their personnel. Antonio Cromartie is a terrific cornerback, which by my accounting means that San Diego has exactly one high-quality defensive back. I just cannot see them slowing the Patriots' passing game whatsoever. Even if Randy Moss's mind is still on the dreaded Consensual Horseplay Scandal, he will have his moments. Plus, no one has stopped Wes Welker yet, and Drayton Florence sure as hell won't be the first. Spectacularly and efficiently, the Pats will get their points.

I do realize that the Chargers come into this with nothing to lose, which makes them all the more dangerous. The victory over the Colts already gives them a season-defining, feel-good theme for the NFL Films highlight reel; there's really no pressure on them. They should be loose and confident, and you know Merriman, Stephen Cooper, and friends will be jabbering and smack-talking from the time they arrive at the stadium. Which, precisely, is why it would nice, if not quite imperative, for the Pats to jump to an early 10-0 or 14-0 lead, just to remind the Chargers, hardly the mentally toughest team in the league, who they're dealing with and that the cause is hopeless.

But even if they don't silence the Chargers early, you know they will do it eventually.

Patriots, 37-17.

Next up, a trip to Arizona. Where history awaits.

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