A quick breakdown of the New England-San Diego divisional playoff game.
The Chargers will win if ...
1. They remember the three most important words in readying for a game against the Patriots and the fertile football mind of New England head coach Bill Belichick -- preparation, preparation and preparation. Facing a Belichick-designed game plan is daunting for anyone, but especially for a quarterback who is making his first postseason appearance. San Diego first-year starter Philip Rivers has demonstrated great poise in 2006 and, even in his poorest outings, has bounced back to make big plays. But what the Chargers can't have is Rivers confounded by the different looks he's going to see when he scans the New England defense. The key is to keep the throttle wide open, but to give Rivers some easy reads.
2. Get the ball early and often to tight end Antonio Gates and tailback LaDainian Tomlinson. As good as the Patriots' defense has been, despite another season in which injuries forced a lot of patchwork combinations in the secondary, the safeties can be beaten, especially if Rodney Harrison's knee injury keeps him out of the lineup. The tandem that started Sunday's wild card game, James Sanders and Artrell Hawkins, doesn't tackle all that well and getting Gates and Tomlinson matched up on those guys could produce some run-after-catch yardage. The key is to force the Pats to drop an extra linebacker, Mike Vrabel or Tedy Bruschi, a little deeper into coverage, thus negating some of their versatility.
3. Obviously, bring heat off the edges on Tom Brady, mostly with the lethal pass-rush duet of linebackers Shawne Merriman (league-high 17 sacks) and Shaun Phillips (11½ sacks). The New England tackles, even leftside stalwart Matt Light, haven't played all that well in 2006. But beyond just pressure, do whatever is necessary to keep Brady from getting into a rhythm and allowing the New England offense to get into a no-huddle flow. Find a way to slow the tempo in general. Because when Brady is on his game, spreading the ball to eight-to-10 different receivers, running off a lot of fast snaps, and throwing the ball accurately, it will knock just about any defense back on its heels.
The Patriots will win if ...
1. Quarterback Tom Brady is allowed to stand unchallenged in the pocket, with clear passing lanes, and deliver the ball on rhythm. Brady can throw every pass in the book, and with authority, and he is one of the game's great streak-shooters. Brady operates like a basketball point guard distributing the ball. He really doesn't care to whom he's throwing, as long as he keeps the chains moving. Brady needs to get the ball out quickly, because it seems safe to assume there is going to be severe pressure from the perimeter, but his quick release is one of his great strengths. New England will run a lot of quick slants and outs, and will use screen passes to any eligible receiver on the field.
2. They get a dominating performance from ends Richard Seymour and Ty Warren and nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who returned to action on Sunday after missing three weeks with a sprained ankle. All three down linemen in the New England 3-4 front are former first-rounders and while Seymour is the only one going to the Pro Bowl, his two line mates may have actually had better seasons than him. Any of the three can dominate upfront, even against an offensive line as good as the San Diego blocking unit. The Patriots need to occupy blockers but, beyond that, get some penetration and keep Tomlinson from being able to square his shoulders to the line. Seymour needs a strong day against rookie left tackle Marcus McNeill.
3. Belichick can come up with a defensive game plan that bamboozles Rivers, gets inside the head of the third-year quarterback, and forces some early turnovers that rattle him. Belichick and his staff are big-game coaches and they've frustrated more experienced quarterbacks, so you know they're going to dig deep into their seemingly bottomless bag of tricks to try to slow the league's No. 11-rated offense. The New England secondary, for all its injuries, remains quite resourceful and capable of taking the ball away, particularly on the lazy throw to the sideline. The availability of Rodney Harrison will be key because he brings great versatility and a knack for making game-altering plays.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.