By Norm Elrod
(CBSLA/CBS Local) — The Los Angeles Chargers were the best wild-card team coming into the playoffs. Having played the Kansas City Chiefs to a regular season draw in the AFC West, but losing the tiebreaker, they traveled to Baltimore Sunday to meet the Ravens. The Chargers were a stellar 7-1 on the road this season (12-4 overall), dispatching with both the Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks in two of the NFL’s more unfriendly stadiums. And after weathering a late Lamar Jackson comeback attempt to overcome the Ravens in the wild-card round, they’re now 8-1.
Their reward is a trip to Foxboro on Sunday, where the New England Patriots await.
What more can be said about the playoff accomplishments of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick? Since the turn of the century, the Patriots have won five of the eight Super Bowls they’ve appeared in. The team dominates the AFC East basically every year and, as a result, is usually a legitimate playoff contender come January. This season, even with a 41-year-old Brady and some early hiccups, they still finished 11-5 and earned their ninth consecutive first-round bye.
Philip Rivers has never beat Tom Brady head to head. In matchups between the two surefire, first-ballot Hall of Famers, Rivers is 0-7. The Chargers’ one win over the Patriots during Rivers’ tenure happened in 2008, with Matt Cassel starting for the injured Brady. As Boomer Esiason recently noted, “as long as his offensive line holds up, and Melvin Gordon is able to control the line of scrimmage a little bit with the running game, this could be Philip’s best opportunity to finally break through against Tom Brady.”
As Esiason alluded to, the Chargers probably have their most talented team of the Rivers era. While the offense wasn’t firing on all cylinders against a nasty Ravens defense, it has enough horsepower to beat most defenses most days, including the Patriots’. Rivers is coming off a one of his best seasons, having passed for 269.2 yards per game, with 32 touchdowns against only 12 interceptions. Melvin Gordon is a dual threat out of the backfield, collecting 885 yards rushing and another 490 yards on 50 receptions in 12 regular-season games. The Chargers also have four receivers who can burn a defense on any play, including Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.
But the key to the Chargers success this Sunday likely plays on the other side of the ball. The Bolts’ defense collected seven sacks against the Ravens and its speedy QB, including five from down linemen. With Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram coming off the ends, they can apply pressure without blitzing. And that gives them plenty of flexibility in coverage. In Baltimore, for example, the Chargers lined up seven defensive backs on most plays. With Casey Hayward and Derwin James, a former second-team and current first-team All-Pro respectively, they have the talent to shut down receivers even in normal formations.
The Patriots offense was about as prolific this season yardage-wise as it has been in the past, collecting 266.1 passing yards and 127.3 rushing yards per game, good enough for top 10 in both categories. That includes 273 yards on the ground against the Buffalo Bills a few weeks ago. But this unit doesn’t possess the same caliber of weapons. The run-first offense flows through rookie Sony Michel, with plenty of short passes to Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan mixed in. Josh Gordon, who provided a credible downfield threat for part of the season, is suspended indefinitely. Rob Gronkowski, with only 47 catches and three touchdowns on the season, hasn’t been the same Gronk we’ve grown accustomed to.
All that said, any offense led by Brady and Belichick has to be respected in the playoffs.
The New England defense seems to operate with a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy. They give up some yards on the ground (112.7) and a lot through the air (246.4). But they also allow comparatively few points (20.3). All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore can blanket any receiver in the League. With few standouts, this Patriots defense must play as a unit to be effective. And it has recently, mostly shutting down the Bills and Miami Dolphins in the season’s final two games.
So what does this all add up to?
The Chargers are probably the better team on paper, but the Patriots have Brady and Belichick. The four-point spread favors New England, but most of that is just the bonus teams get for home-field advantage. I’m not sure Foxboro itself will be much of a factor. The Patriots are undefeated at home this season, but the Chargers have won the same number of games on the road. Game-time temperatures are predicted to be in the high-20s, without wind or snow. But while the Patriots should be fresh after the bye, the Chargers have to travel cross-country for the second time in as many weeks. That travel could lead to fatigue as the game wears on.
The Patriots will look to run straight ahead. So don’t expect the Chargers to play seven defensive backs, like they did against the Ravens, since sideline-to-sideline speed won’t be as much of a factor. One issue, however, could be the size of the Chargers’ front four, coming off a strong showing and now facing a well-rested Patriots line. They’ll need to duplicate that effort, to limit the yards between the tackles and put pressure on Brady. This Chargers defense is up to the task.
The Patriots defense has struggled against the run. And though Chargers running back Melvin Gordon has lingering knee issues, backup Austin Ekeler has also been capable runner and pass-catcher for most of the season. Rivers likes to spread the ball around, and he has a lot of options to choose from. The Pats secondary won’t be able to contain all the speed coming at them and will give up some big plays. It’s just a matter of when, and to whom.
The X-factor, as is so often the case, will be Bill Belichick and what new wrinkle he can use to get an advantage. He’ll do something to minimize the Chargers’ advantage, and it will be clever. But it won’t be enough.
Look for the Chargers to light up the scoreboard early and hold off the Patriots to advance to the AFC Championship.
SportsLine analyst R.J. White sees things much the same way…
The Patriots are tough at home, especially in the playoffs and especially in the divisional round, where they’re 11-1 straight up and 7-4-1 ATS. But even though this year’s team went 8-0 at home, they just don’t look nearly as crisp as they have in the past, with Rob Gronkowski seemingly on his last legs, Tom Brady making more small mistakes here and there and the defense struggling against teams that can run the ball. The Pats are just 1-4 when giving up 150 rushing yards, and the Chargers should enjoy getting this defense after playing the Ravens twice and the Broncos in their last three games.