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Patriots-Chargers an identity test

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 16, 2011 10:13 AM

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On the odd chance we had forgotten, “A Football Life” is once again reminding us. Even for Bill Belichick, success in the NFL is a week-to-week proposition. Losses can fuel victories and wins can trigger letdowns.

With that in mind, the San Diego Chargers will be in Foxborough Sunday.

Ah yes, the Chargers. Over the last several years, has there been a team in the NFL that has generally and more accurately reflected everything the Patriots have not? Under coach Norv Turner, the Chargers usually get less from more. Since the start of the 2004 season, the Chargers have won more regular season games than all but three teams in the NFL: the Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts. Of course, the Chargers are the only one of those clubs that has failed to win a Super Bowl.

During that same period of time, while the Patriots, Steelers and Colts have gone a combined 25-14 in postseason play and participated in seven Super Bowls (winning four), San Diego has gone 3-5 in the playoffs and failed to reach the big game even once.

Stay sexy, San Diego. But your football team is a choking outfit with a history of playing its best when the games matter the least.

Whether that translates come Sunday remains anybody’s guess, but this much seems clear: the 2011 Patriots will get a far better test this week than they did in Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins. Based on yardage, the Chargers had the top-ranked offense and defense in the NFL last season. And yet, in typical fashion, the Chargers accomplished all of that and somehow managed to miss the playoffs. San Diego also was among only four teams to rank in the top 10 of the league in both points for and points against – the Patriots, Packers and Falcons were the others – and, of course, the Chargers were the only member of that group that failed to play in the postseason.

Last year, during Week 7 of the regular season, the Chargers outgained the Patriots, 363-179.

And lost.

“It was our fewest production all season when we played them,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady told reporters earlier this week when asked about the Chargers. “We had like 200 yards of offense – didn’t do really well in the red area, didn’t really run it great, certainly didn’t throw it great, didn’t protect as well as we’re capable. We were pretty fortunate last year playing them.”

Brady speaks the truth. The Chargers turned the ball over four times to the Patriots’ zero. On one instance, Chargers wide receiver Richard Goodman caught a 25-yard pass from Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and hit the turf, then got up and left the ball on the ground for the Patriots (James Sanders) to recover it.

What a dope.

Still, in so many ways, the Chargers will be an excellent test for these Patriots, who outclassed the Dolphins in Week 1. Excluding the Patriots, the Chargers scored more points than any team in the NFL last year. Rivers is infinitely better than Miami quarterback Chad Henne. Turner often is criticized for being a mediocre head coach – Turner is 100-105 in his career – but he cemented his place in the NFL as offensive coordinator of the mighty Dallas Cowboys teams in 1992-93 and his teams always seem potent.

“They’re a tough team to get ready for,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “Norv does a great job offensively with the usage of his talent and all the different formations and looks they give you, but they’re very sound. You have to play well against these guys – they’re a good football team.”

For the Patriots, particularly in the wake of last season’s playoff loss to the Jets, therein lies the fundamental question on Sunday: can the Pats play well? New England last year went 14-2 – the same kind of season the Chargers had in 2006 – only to be upended in the divisional playoffs. (In 2006, it was the Patriots who knocked off the heavily-favored Chargers.) Somewhat shockingly, over the last three years, New England has become the kind of team that plays its best when the games matter least. Belichick himself acknowledged this in “A Football Life,” the NFL documentary that aired last night and began recounting the 2009 Patriots season.

Speaking of the 2008 Patriots who went 11-5 and missed the playoffs, Belichick said, “We couldn’t beat the other good teams in the AFC.”

Back then, the difference was that the Patriots couldn’t beat the good teams during the regular season. Now, over the last two years, the Patriots just can’t win in the playoffs.

Come January of this year, the Patriots will have no excuses. Over the last two years, Belichick has overhauled much of his roster, particularly on defense, and changed the New England philosophy. Randy Moss is gone, replaced by a far more diverse offense that includes Deion Branch, a pair of blossoming tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez) and a Mighty Mouse backfield. The defensive line has all but undergone a transplant. On multiple levels, the Patriots now have the kind of experience that should allow them to take the next step in getting back to, and winning Super Bowls.

The Chargers, after all, always have wanted to be more like the Patriots.

But in the last couple of years, at least, the truth is that the Patriots have been more like the Chargers.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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