Patriots will return to big game

When the NFL playoffs started two weeks ago, hype surrounded the San Diego Chargers, who finished the regular season with a 14-2 record.

MVP candidate LaDainian Tomlinson was riding high on a record-setting 31 touchdown season.

However, there was no happy ending for Marty Schottenheimer’s squad as they bowed out of the playoffs with a 24-21 loss to the New England Patriots.

With the Patriots primed to make another championship run, three teams look to dethrone the Patriots, the league’s favorite to win it all.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is 13-2 in the playoffs, and the Patriots could bring the AFC crown home for the fourth time in six years.

New England is on a five-game winning streak, having won nine of the last 10 games.

Sunday’s impact players for the Colts-Patriots matchup include receivers Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney.

Gaffney, who only had 11 catches during the regular season, has 18 catches for 207 yards and a touchdown, in two playoff wins.

Look for the former Raines High School standout to continue his tear against an overrated Colts secondary.

Caldwell, The Pats’ leading receiver during the regular season, should open up things for Brady as the Colts’ key in on Gaffney.

Inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi is back to form after recording 11 tackles against the Chargers.

Peyton Manning’s inefficiency in the playoffs will continue, as the Patriots will try to confuse Manning with different defensive schemes. Manning is coming into the contest with one touchdown and five interceptions. That will not cut it against The Pats’ defense, ranked second in points allowed per game.

Belicheck’s boys will take down Dungy’s Colts 27-14, earning yet another trip to the Super Bowl.

In Sunday’s NFC matchup at Soldier Field in Chicago, look for the Bears defense to try to redeem itself after poor performances in recent weeks. The Bears defense has been struggling, giving up more than 20 points in the last five games. Chicago barely escaped Sunday with a 27-24 overtime victory over Seattle.

New Orleans is the surprise team of the 2006-2007 season, coming into Sunday’s championship game after defeating a hot Philadelphia Eagles team 27-24 . With America by their side after Hurricane Katrina, the Saints have been an emotional lift for a city struck by tragedy.

The Saints have an offensive arsenal led by pro bowler Drew Brees, who was the NFL’s third leading passer.

Running back Deuce McAllister had a quiet 1,000-yard season after sitting out most of the 2005 season with a knee injury.

Dynamic rookies Reggie Bush and Marques Colstonalso combined for 16 touchdowns for the Saints.

Rex Grossman has had a Jekyll & Hyde type of season, and no one knows which side will show up Sunday. Expect a close shootout 35-31 for the Saints. The Bears’ luck will finally run out.