The last time the San Diego Chargers went to New England, they had Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson and a healthy Antonio Gates.
They lost anyway, 38-14.
The Chargers may have beaten the Indianapolis Colts 28-24 on Sunday without their top players, but they'll have a hard time keeping up with the unbeaten Patriots in the AFC title game if they're still out. The same thing seems true in the NFC, where the New York Giants will head to Green Bay after upsetting Dallas 21-17 with a banged-up secondary missing its top three cornerbacks.
Back on Sept. 16, a Sunday night game in the second week of the season, the Patriots were just getting started on their 16-0 run and blowing away anyone in their path. Their margin of victory dropped markedly in the second half of the season, but New England will still be 17-0 when it plays host to the Chargers next Sunday.
``A lot's happened since then,'' Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the Chargers beat the Colts to qualify for a trip to Foxborough and the AFC title game. ``We'll definitely start all over on the preparations. It's like it's a new team.''
The first question for San Diego is the health of Rivers and Tomlinson, its starting quarterback and star running back, who was the 2006 NFL MVP. Both injured their knees against the Colts and their status isn't yet known for the conference championship. Gates played with a toe injury, but clearly wasn't at full speed.
Both Rivers and Tomlinson said they hope to play. Coach Norv Turner said they both were questionable.
Even if they do take the field, the Chargers (13-5) face a daunting task.
Tom Brady did to Jacksonville in Saturday night's 31-20 win what Peyton Manning did to the Chargers early in Sunday's game, completing his first 13 passes, most of them underneath, to help Indianapolis take a 7-0 lead. But after Marvin Harrison, coming back from injury, fumbled one of his completions to give the Chargers life, Manning started taking more chances and had less success deep.
San Diego managed to beat the Colts with subs - good ones in Michael Turner and Darren Sproles at running back, plus journeyman Billy Volek at quarterback leading the winning TD drive. Turner and Sproles together equal Tomlinson, but Volek is not going to beat the Patriots. Rivers will have a hard time doing that if he's ready.
If the Chargers, who opened as a 15-point underdog, are to have a chance, they'll have to get the kind of pressure they got on Manning on critical drives late in the game. That was most notable when Shawne Merriman got around rookie left tackle Tony Ugoh to force an incomplete pass on fourth down inside the San Diego 10-yard line with just over 2 minutes left.
Merriman is certainly one of the NFL's best pass rushers and Shaun Phillips is formidable from the other side.
So Brady may not have as much time as he had Saturday night in completing 26 of 28 passes, an NFL playoff-record 92.9 percent. But the Chargers don't cover as well as Jacksonville, and Randy Moss is unlikely to be limited to one catch for 14 yards, as he was by the Jaguars.
Now we wait to see if Rivers and Tomlinson will even play.
Belichick thinks they will.
``We're prepared for everybody. As we saw today, any number of players could be in the game,'' he said. ``If they're on the 53-man roster, we'll prepare for everybody.''
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NFC
New York Giants (12-6) at Green Bay (14-3)
Like the Patriots and Chargers, these two played in the second week. That one was at Giants Stadium and the Packers won 35-13 before New York understood the defense installed by Steve Spagnuolo, its new coordinator.
That defense, with its stunts and twists, confused and harassed Tony Romo enough in the second half against Dallas on Sunday to keep him from exploiting a secondary without Sam Madison, Aaron Ross and Kevin Dockery, its three top cornerbacks for most of the season.
The Packers opened as a 6 1/2-point favorite, which seems a little low.
Consider that Eli Manning's revival - eight touchdown passes, just one interception and passer ratings of well over 100 in his last three games - all came in good weather. And he has attributed his problems in the four previous games to wind and cold.
Attention Eli: The long-range forecast for next Sunday in Green Bay is a high of 4 degrees. Yes, Brett Favre, like Manning, is a southerner - his hometown of Kiln, Miss., and Manning's New Orleans are about 60 miles apart.
But Favre has played in Green Bay for 16 seasons and thrives there. Had he been forced to go to Dallas, he would have been returning to a place where he is 0-9 as a starter.
If it turns into a ground battle, there's the matchup that probably will be second only to Brett-Eli in the pregame hype: Ryan Grant, who rushed for 201 yards against in the 42-20 win over Seattle in the snow on Saturday vs. the Giants running backs.
Grant, who played high school football less than 20 miles from Giants Stadium, was signed as an undrafted free agent from Notre Dame by New York in 2005. He spent that year on the practice squad, then last season on injured reserve.
He was impressive in preseason but was fifth on the depth chart behind Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward, Reuben Droughns and Ahmad Bradshaw. The Packers, knowing he would be cut, gave the Giants a sixth-round pick for him before some other team could claim him on waivers.
Now Grant stands between his old teammates and the Super Bowl.

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