Pats get unneeded help

An injury to the NFL’s leading rusher normally would be a big deal before a playoff game, but the San Diego Chargers are faced with even bigger concerns than running back LaDainian Tomlinson’s bad knee.

At least Tomlinson is expected to play in today’s AFC Championship Game against the undefeated New England Patriots. Some of his teammates might not be so lucky.

Despite winning eight straight games, the Chargers are limping into this game with quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, linebacker Shawne Merriman and defensive tackle Jamal Williams all battling illness or injury.

It’s not as if the Patriots, 14-point home favorites, need the help.

“We thought the Chargers would give the Patriots a game if the Chargers were healthy,” handicapper Chuck Sippl of The Gold Sheet said. “But we just can’t take the risk.”

Sippl ( said he is siding with New England and hoping one trend continues while another ends.

The Patriots, 17-0 straight up and 10-7 against the spread, are 2-7 against the spread in their past nine games. They have failed to cover four in a row.

“I don’t like the double-digit point spread,” Sippl said. “If you look at the point-spread trends, New England is having a hard time covering these bigger numbers.”

But the other trend seems to favor the Patriots. Over the past three seasons, only one of six conference championship games was decided by fewer than 14 points. And this AFC matchup is shaping up as another blowout.

A knee injury to Rivers might override the fear of laying two touchdowns to a quality underdog. “If Rivers either can’t start or has to leave the game, we don’t want San Diego,” Sippl said.

It’s a good bet Rivers won’t be poking fun at the opposing quarterback or taunting fans in Foxborough, Mass., at the end of today’s game. If he’s unable to go, the Chargers must turn to backup Billy Volek, who has not started since 2005.

As good as he is, Tomlinson can be replaced. San Diego has impressive depth at running back with Michael Turner and Darren Sproles.

Volek, Turner and Sproles helped the Chargers stun the Indianapolis Colts on the road last week. It’s doubtful they can do the same to a Patriots defense that has coach Bill Belichick calling the shots.

“There is no better coach when it comes to game-planning than Belichick,” Sippl said.

MGM Mirage sports book director Robert Walker said he understands why the betting public is showing strong support for New England.

“It’s hard enough to beat the Patriots with your best players,” Walker said. “With the Chargers’ injuries and everything else, you could make an argument that New England is the play.

“If I had to bet it, I’d probably play New England. I think it will be close in the first half, and the Patriots will pull away.”

Walker said he expects both favorites to advance today, setting up a Super Bowl with Green Bay and New England. The Packers are 71/2-point home favorites over the New York Giants in the NFC title game.

“But I didn’t think San Diego had a chance at all against Indianapolis, so there goes my credibility,” Walker said.

The Patriots took a 24-0 halftime lead and embarrassed the Chargers 38-14 in Week 2. Tomlinson was all but invisible while being held to 43 yards rushing.

Sippl said New England quarterback Tom Brady is more capable of handling the San Diego defensive pressure that rattled the Colts’ Peyton Manning. The weather might be a factor hindering Brady, with temperatures in the low 20s and significant winds in the forecast.

“Our biggest concern about the Patriots in this game is the wind,” Sippl said, “because we need Brady to be able to pass and pass with accuracy.”

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at or (702) 387-2907.

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