Five key story lines of AFC title game

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

I believe it was me who said way back in February that Norv Turner was the perfect hire for the San Diego Chargers. Yes, you can look it up – though I'll also admit to strongly assuming/insinuating that the Indianapolis Colts would beat San Diego on Sunday, as I've been routinely reminded. Fair enough.

The best part about the New England Patriots-San Diego matchup is all the bad blood spilled between these teams in the playoffs last year. Yeah, Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson and Patriots coach Bill Belichick said there was no harm meant by all the words back and forth. Don't believe the public pleasantries. The Patriots got the Chargers pretty riled, and you can count on a few players, including Tomlinson, reminding guys about the taunting incident that occurred at the end of New England's upset victory. Still, the only thing that counts next Sunday is what happens on the field. With that in mind, here are five story lines to consider:

1. Are the Chargers anything close to the team that got whacked 38-14 in Week 2 by New England?

The Chargers are 12-2 since starting the season 1-3. However, if the Chargers don't have quarterback Philip Rivers and/or Tomlinson, who both failed to finish Sunday's game at Indianapolis because of knee injuries, then they aren't even as good as the team that got stomped. Expect Rivers and Tomlinson to play in this one, although Rivers is the iffy of the two. If Rivers plays, he has to avoid the three turnovers he had in the first game against New England, two of which contributed to a 24-0 deficit at halftime.

2. Should the Patriots be concerned about their pass defense?

Yes, but not as much as if Indianapolis had made it to the conference title game. The Chargers are a gifted team at the skill positions but not as deep as the Colts. Wide receiver Chris Chambers has played well since being acquired in a trade from Miami, and Vincent Jackson has great physical skills. If Antonio Gates is healthy, this is a fair fight. But the real question is whether the Patriots can be sharper in coverage against San Diego than they were against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Saturday night. In crunch time, the unit looked a little better against Jacksonville, but it was sloppy overall and there's no getting around it.

3. In the matchup of Belichick vs. Norv Turner, is it even close?

Through the first month of this season, the obvious answer was no. Belichick still is the premier tactician in the game, so Belichick gets a serious nod in this one. However, give Turner a lot of credit for righting a ship of which many people thought he would lose control. It took Turner a little longer to gain the trust of his team, but he has done it. He also has shown great calm in tight games over the second half of the season.

4. What's the best one-on-one matchup of this game?

Obviously, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who is coming off his record-breaking performance against Jacksonville, is the most significant player in the game. However, it takes several players to rattle Brady, meaning that Shawne Merriman, Luis Castillo and Shaun Phillips had better all be on their games. But in terms of two simply great athletes going at it, Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss against San Diego cornerback Antonio Cromartie is a matchup of truly special guys. Moss is the premier wide receiver in the game. Cromartie, who had a league-high 10 interceptions this season, has the size, speed and strength quickly to become the premier cornerback in the league. Hopefully, they will match up for most of the game.

5. Will a former employer end Junior's journey?

Is there a more perfect scenario than Junior Seau trying to make it to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1994 season by going against his hometown Chargers, who drafted him No. 5 overall in 1990? The script doesn't get much better than that. Seau is hoping to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since that season in which his squad got walloped by the San Francisco 49ers. To get there, he has to go against the team that told him five years ago that he couldn't play anymore. Coach Marty Schottenheimer isn't around anymore, but A.J. Smith and owner Dean Spanos remain. Seau is a guy who plays with intense pride. This game may mean more than any he has played in his career to this point. That's not an overstatement.

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