By Tom E. Curran
FOXBORO -- Most years, the alarm clock usually goes off for the San Diego Chargers sometime after Halloween. This season, they may be sleeping in.
The notoriously slow-starting Chargers are 2-4. They will play this week without defensive end Larry English and kicker Nate Kaeding. Wide receivers Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee are doubtful. Tight end Antonio Gates' availability is questionable.
And in waltz the Patriots, a team doubled over with growing pains after the third week of the season that has suddenly "grown up right before our eyes," as linebacker Jerod Mayo said this week.
In order to show what big boys they are, they need now to take care of business on the Left Coast against a team that - by record and current roster - they should be able to handle. Let's have a look, shall we?
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
1. Test 'Em Out. The Chargers defense hasn't exactly seen the iron of the league's offenses: Chiefs, Jags, Seahawks, Cardinals, Raiders and Rams. This week, they're stepping up a class and their third-in-the-league pass defense (163.7 yards per game against) is going to see more weapons and a better class of quarterback than its yet faced. Look for the Patriots to attack the secondary of corners Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer and safeties Eric Weddle and Paul Oliver.
2. Close 'Em Out. The Patriots haven't yet slammed the door on all questions about their road inefficiency. The Miami win was buoyed in the second half by two return touchdowns and a shorty drive after a blocked punt. There's a chance they get the drop on San Diego. Closing them out in the second half with the offense on the field would be a sight not seen in some time.
3. Control Phillips. Chargers outside linebacker Shaun Phillips is a sack machine when he gets on a roll. He's got six this year and four of those came in one game. He's very athletic - kind of a Rosey Colvin type - and could be a challenge for Sebastian Vollmer, who got eaten up a bit by the quicker Cameron Wade in Miami.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
1. Expect A Ground Attack. Even though the Chargers like to go downfield - a lot - they are down a few targets. So handing the ball to Ryan Mathews and battering ram Mike Tolbert might not be a bad idea. The Patriots' front seven was outstanding against Baltimore. San Diego has a veteran line that may be better than Baltimore's, though, so we'll see if that solid play can continue.
2. Same Intensity. So Brandon Meriweather took a fine and made headlines with his exceptionally dirty hit on Todd Heap. The New England secondary - and Meriweather in particular - need to bring the same aggression this week but stay off lighting up guys who are in the air. The pursuit and general ill will they've been bringing can't go away because of a week's worth of hand-wringing.
3. Close The Gates. Hurt or healthy, Antonio Gates is a coverage nightmare. He's got an injured tootsie this week but he hasn't missed a game since 2005 and - with his teammates unable to go - chances are he'll be out there. If he is, responsibility for him will fall to a lot of guys but the Patriots' linebackers and safeties in particular. He's a drive-extender and, in the red zone, he finishes. If the Patriots take him away, Philip Rivers' list of reliable targets shrinks.
Patriots 30, Chargers 28. San Diego will keep this one close because Rivers is that good. But the New England offense should be able to outgun San Diego provided Tom Brady gets even more comfortable with the shorter Moss-less attack they'll be running for the second week.