Ex-Bolts now key in Pats’ game plan
By: By HOWARD ULMAN, AP Sports Writer
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The last time Junior Seau played in an AFC championship game, his team was given little chance to beat the top seed.
In January 1995, the Steelers won their first playoff game in a rout, while the Chargers eked out a one-point victory that set up the matchup between those teams the following weekend.
“Sitting in my hotel room in Pittsburgh and hearing all the cheers and pep rallies that were going around and all the Super Bowl videos that were being taped, everything was against us,” the Patriots linebacker said. “The yellow towels were flying around. It was definitely a time when we thought we were against the world.”
But San Diego won 17-13 in Pittsburgh then went on to one of the toughest losses in Seau’s 18-year career, a 49-26 rout by San Francisco in the Super Bowl.
Thirteen years later, the Chargers aren’t given much of a chance against the perfect Patriots on Sunday, the day after Seau’s 39th birthday.
But he knows expectations can fall short. Didn’t the Patriots squander a 21-3 lead in last year’s AFC title game and lose to Indianapolis, 38-34?
So Seau and safety Rodney Harrison, a rookie on that 1994 Chargers team, are working hard to avoid an upset that can stop New England’s unbeaten season one game short of another Super Bowl appearance.
Seau sees many comparisons between this year’s San Diego team and the one in 1994 — the last two Chargers clubs to reach the AFC championship game.
Seau and Harrison will play against the Chargers as teammates for the first time in their long careers.
Sunday’s game, then, should have some special emotions for them, especially since Seau is a native of San Diego. Right?
“I try not to get too Oprah with it and know that it’s just another game and know that I’m so happy for the city of San Diego, my hometown,” he said, but “it’s going to be a challenge of the game of football, nothing more.”
Harrison prefers to show his emotions on the field.
“It’s just special to be in the AFC Championship,” Harrison said. “I don’t know necessarily facing the Chargers makes it any more special.”
The Patriots have spent the week building up the Chargers as the best team in the NFL since Thanksgiving. They were 5-5 before the holiday but 8-0 since then.
New England coach Bill Belichick likes to point out that his team has won fewer games in that stretch. But that’s because they had a playoff bye and are 7-0 after Thanksgiving — but 17-0 overall.
San Diego coach Norv Turner isn’t surprised that Belichick fawned over the Chargers.
“Everyone knows that New England right now is playing the best football in the league and it’s going to be a real challenge for us,” Turner said.
Tom Brady’s 50 touchdown passes and Randy Moss’ 23 scoring catches are NFL single-season record. So are the 589 points the Patriots scored.
But the advanced age of their defense may be catching up. They allowed three scoring drives of at least 80 yards in last Saturday night’s 31-20 playoff win over Jacksonville after giving up four touchdowns in a 38-35 win over the New York Giants in the regular-season finale.
The Chargers’ defense is younger with a knack for creating turnovers. They led the NFL with 30 interceptions and 48 takeaways then added two interceptions and one fumble recovery in last Sunday’s 28-24 playoff win at Indianapolis. All-Pro cornerback Antonio Cromartie’s 10 interceptions led the league.
“It’s remarkable the things we’ve done defensively,” Turner said. “It seems like one guy tips (the ball) and it goes up in the air and one of our guys finds a way to get it.”
The Patriots also have some pretty solid defensive players.
Seau had three interceptions and 3 1/2 sacks this season and Harrison ended Jacksonville’s hopes with an interception with just under four minutes left. One more win, and the Patriots will have a shot at their fourth championship in seven years.
That’s a long way from San Diego. Seau and Harrison left there after the 2002 season, when the Chargers lost their last four games to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs for the seventh straight season.
“Whether you want to judge my play, whether you want to judge the morale or having the same people there lose and not making any strides forward,” Seau said, “you have to look at that and say, ‘maybe it’s time to change.”
Harrison went straight to New England. Seau spent the next three seasons with Miami and is in his second with New England.
On Sunday, for the first time in 13 seasons, they’ll play again as teammates in an AFC championship game.
“It’s a lot of hype around this game and deservedly so, but, at the same time, it’s a football game,” Harrison said. “It doesn’t matter what we’ve done in the past.”