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Chargers face that old Pats magic

You call this a reward? San Diego finishes with the best record in the NFL at 14-2. The Chargers get a first-round bye in the playoffs. So after a two-week break, whom do they get to play this weekend in their divisional round game in San Diego? The Patriots.

The Patriots, who have won three of the last five Super Bowls and are 11-1 in the playoffs under Bill Belichick.

The Patriots, who have the best road record in the AFC (7-1) and have won seven of their last eight games overall.

The Patriots, who set a team record for fewest points allowed in a season.

The Patriots, who have Tom Brady.

Chargers fans have to be feeling a tad uneasy right now. San Diego has the more talented roster, but it's hard to be confident when you're outclassed at the two most important positions in football: head coach and quarterback.

History says Belichick will find a way to outwit the Chargers' Marty Schottenheimer, who is 5-11 in the playoffs and has underachieved with elite talent before. Philip Rivers will be hard-pressed to outplay Brady in his first playoff start.

Brady is the best big-game quarterback of his time -- for my money, the best player, period. San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson is the MVP, the top running back in football. Still, you don't hear New England fans anguishing over the mismatch at running back. Their three-headed troika of Corey Dillon, Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk can hold its own. They combined for 145 yards in Sunday's 37-16 win over the Jets.

But Chargers fans are worrying about a potential mismatch at quarterback. Chances are, the Pats will stack the line to stop Tomlinson and dare Rivers to beat them. Belichick will disguise coverages and mix up his blitzes. He'll try to confound Rivers, as he did the Colts' Peyton Manning in earlier postseasons.

The Pats have an excellent chance against San Diego if Brady is cool and efficient, as he was last Sunday. The Chargers' defense is better than the Jets', but Brady is on one of his patented late-season rolls. The Pats are averaging 35.3 points in their current four-game winning streak. Brady hasn't thrown an interception in more than a month.

Brady had solid numbers against the Jets (22-34, 212 yards, two TDs), but stats don't tell the story. The Pats used a lot of no-huddle to counteract the Jets' blitz and made it harder for them to change personnel. Brady managed the game expertly, using quick snap counts to keep the Jets on their heels in the run game.

In his typical fashion, Brady turned another marginal receiver into a postseason star. Jabar Gafney, who was released by the Eagles in training camp and out of football until October, led the Pats with eight catches for 104 yards.

Jabar Gafney? Brady didn't make the Pro Bowl this year, but it might have been his finest season. Early in the season, as he struggled to adjust to a marginal cast of receivers, critics wondered if Brady was losing it. They talked about his negative body language. No one is questioning his body language now.

Every year at this time, we're reminded how important it is to have a capable quarterback. In last weekend's wild-card matchups, the team with the better, more playoff-tested quarterback won all four games. Brady was the best of all.

The next round will be intriguing, with the best remaining QBs -- Manning and Brady -- on the road as underdogs. Manning, fast becoming the Phil Mickelson of quarterbacks, will have his hands full in Baltimore. Brady won't have an easy time in San Diego, either. It might take a classic performance to get past an enormously gifted Chargers team.

A few weeks from now, we might even look back on Chargers-Pats as the real Super Bowl. We know better than to count out Brady in one of those.


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