AFC Playoff Preview: Divisional Weekend

Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) at New England Patriots (11-5)

Sunday, January 13 th , 1:05pm EST.

I’m going to start here. Philip Rivers has played against the Patriots eight times in his career, including the playoffs, split evenly between home and road games. He’s beaten Belichick’s bunch only once in that time. In 2008. Yeah, it was a long time ago. But more than that, it was week six of 2008. Memory clicking in yet? Nothing? Tom Brady played in only one game in 2008. He completed seven passes before a knee injury sidelined him for the entire season. Matt Cassell led the Patriots to an 11-5 record, tied for best in the AFC East, but the Dolphins won the tiebreaker and New England missed out on the playoffs entirely.

Point is, Philip Rivers is a great quarterback, playing with the best team he’s ever had. But he needs to go on the road for the second consecutive week against another top-ten scoring defense and outduel a guy he’s never beaten in Tom Brady.

Just because Rivers has never bested Brady head-to-head doesn’t mean you should expect an aerial assault by the Patriots, though. New England quietly boasts the game’s fifth-best rushing attack, averaging over 120 YPG on the ground. In the playoffs, they trail only Kansas City, who no longer has their primary rusher, and the Los Angeles Rams. Brady and company will likely grind down that Los Angeles defense and eventually, you’ll see some sparks fly from Sony Michel, who has a knack for breaking large runs late in games. You’re thinking that the Chargers did well last weekend, controlling Baltimore’s run game. That’s true. But Baltimore came in with an unbalanced game plan. Lamar Jackson was a rookie quarterback in his first playoff game, and he eventually shredded the Los Angeles secondary for two TD’s in the fourth quarter. What do you think Tom Brady will do if Los Angeles deploys the same tactics to stop Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead? Death by a thousand cuts from Edelman and White, that’s what.

Much has been made of the success of the Chargers edge rushers. That’s no surprise. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram combined for 12.5 sacks this season and have been very disruptive to opposing quarterbacks. New England will need to work to negate L.A.’s dangerous pass rush with a revamped offensive line that has done well protecting Brady this season, minimizing edge pressure (9.6%) better than any team in the league, per NFL.com’s NextGen stats. He’s been sacked twenty-one times, down from thirty-five a year ago.

Much ink has been spilt over the seeming decline and/or demise of Rob Gronkowski, who seems to have slowed a step, and hasn’t produced anything like his accustomed HOF numbers this year. He’ll likely be shadowed for much of the game by Chargers rookie standout Derwin James. It’s a physical mismatch that I expect the Patriots will capitalize on once or twice in high leverage situations over the middle, where his speed will be less consequential than his size. In the red zone, I expect him to be a decoy drawing double coverage. The Chargers will pose some difficulties for the New England defense as well. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams have been the go-to men for Philip rivers all year, with Allen approaching

1200 yards on the season. Future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates is still dangerous in high pressure situations, like their version of Gronk. Melvin Gordon, when healthy, has been an elite running back, and Austin Ekeler has been a top level second back. Both have been dinged up, and Gordon sat out Wednesday’s practice before limited reps on Thursday. That’s got to be a concern in the locker room. If the Chargers lose balance on offense, their receivers will have a tough time against the Patriots secondary, which Pro Football Focus grades out as the second-best unit in the league, and the best remaining in the playoffs. They’re tied for the third most interceptions in the league with eighteen as a group, and the Pats have had benefit of a robust +10 turnover ratio this season.

Prediction: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s success in this exact scenario is hard to overlook. With the extra week off and homefield advantage, the Belichick-Brady Patriots are the toughest team in football, going 20-3 at home in the playoffs. I can see a close game with the physical advantage to L.A., but I don’t see them escaping Foxboro with a win unless they do two things; completely stifle the run and hit Brady… a lot. It will be exceedingly difficult to do both.

Patriots- 24
Chargers- 20

EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out Tom’s other playoff previews here

Image Source: USA Today

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