The Patriots welcome the Los Angeles Chargers into Foxboro on Sunday for a Divisional Round matchup, with both teams vying for a spot in the AFC Championship game next Sunday. This is one of the most interesting games of the weekend, with age and experience going up against speed and youth. It could end up being an explosive and exciting game.
Los Angeles was quietly one of the best teams in the AFC this year. Overshadowed by their AFC West counterpart Kansas City, the Chargers finished the season with an impressive 12-4 record. Even their losses are nothing to be particularly ashamed of, with their only defeats coming against the Chiefs, the Rams, the Broncos, and the Ravens (three of which were playoff teams).
The Chargers defense was overall one of the best in the NFL. They ranked in the top 10 in the league in opponent points per game, total yards per game, passing yards per game, rushing yards per game, and completion percentage. Much of this success comes from a young, highly talented group of defensive players led by Gus Bradley. Their pass rush is one of the best in the NFL, thanks to Melvin Gordon and Joey Bosa. The pair of edge defenders has an incredible combination of skill and strength, with their greatest talent being their versatility with playing in multiple positions. Los Angeles' secondary is led by Casey Hayward and rookie safety Derwin James. They have been a spectacular unit this season, with help from Adrian Phillips, Desmond King, and Jahleel Addae.
Under offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and head coach Anthony Lynn, the Chargers offense has also been productive this season. They finished seventh in the league in points per game (26.5), and in the top half in the league in total yards per game, passing yards per game, and rushing yards per game. Los Angeles was also effective in the Red Zone, scoring a touchdown on 62% of their red zone attempts. Veteran quarterback Phillip Rivers has finally found himself surrounded by a solid cast of skill players. LA had an impressive running back duo with Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler. They also boasted one of the stronger receiver corps in the NFL, with Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Travis Benjamin, and Tyrell Williams. Their tight ends have also performed admirably considering that the Chargers top target, Hunter Henry, was sidelined with an ACL tear.
This is a team with few obvious holes. They have multiple ways to attack teams on both sides of the ball. They have also dealt with adversity well all season, losing just one road game all year. LA will not be an easy opponent for the Patriots.
Efficiency, clock management, and a strong run game will all be critical to a Patriots victory. The Patriots running game has been surprisingly successful all year long, particularly in the second half of the season. They rushed for over 130 yards in four of their last six games. A successful rushing attack like this allows them to control the tempo of the game, wear down a young defense that will have plenty of energy, and set the Chargers up to be burned on play action passes.
Sony Michel has quietly been one of the better rookies in the league. He certainly hasn't received the same attention that other rookies have received, but he has quietly had one of the best seasons for a Patriot running back in the last decade. His numbers are on par with, if not greater than Dion Lewis in 2017 and LeGarrette Blount in 2016. New England will likely try to ride Michel to another AFC Championship berth.
The Patriots offensive line will play an important role in this as well. They finished the year as one of the better units in the NFL. In fact, Pro Football Focus ranked them in the top ten. Despite some mid/late season penalty struggles, they have been efficient in both pass and run blocking. They will have their work cut out for them on Sunday. The Chargers defensive front is athletic and tough. New England's line will need to play smart and tough to establish control of the line of scrimmage. The Chargers also attempted to rely on their defensive backs last week against Baltimore, playing seven DBs at times. If they try to do that against New England, the Patriots offensive line should be able to take advantage of the size difference.
The Patriots pass catchers need to prove that they are not as bad of a unit as national pundits make them out to be. Despite decreased numbers for each of New England's receivers and tight ends, they are still a talented group. Understanding the game plan, and embracing diversity will be key for them to beat a talented Chargers secondary. Rob Gronkowski is likely going to deal with Derwin James. The rookie has had a good season and reminds me of a young HaHa Clinton-Dix who covered Gronk well in the past. However, despite his struggles this year, I still believe Gronk is the best tight end in the NFL. He should be able to cause James to make a mistake and create opportunities for himself.
The Patriots most important weapons, however, may be James White and Rex Burkhead. New England's versatile running backs are elite receivers at their position. They should be able to take advantage of the Chargers biggest defensive hole: their linebackers. LA's linebacking corps has been their defense's weakest link all season. If White or Burkhead can find themselves matched up against linebackers, they should have monster performances.
Tom Brady has received a lot of undeserved criticism this year for not performing at an MVP level, despite being a top 10 quarterback this season at 41 years old. January has been where he has made himself a legend, and this is his opportunity to do it again. In reality, he has already done enough to quiet critics forever. However, Sunday gives him another chance to prove the trolls wrong, and prove why he is the greatest quarterback of all time.
The Patriots defense has been fantastic in the second half of the season, giving up more than 17 points in just one of their last six games. That momentum will be necessary heading into Sunday. The Chargers have a talented offense with a high number of weapons. It will be no easy task slowing them down.
New England's pass rush has received a high level of criticism throughout 2018. They have had decent QB pressure, but have not always converted that into sacks. Sunday will give them a chance to prove that they are a top ten unit. The Chargers offensive line has struggled all season, allowing 32 sacks on the year (the Patriots have only given up 21). Dialing up pressure on Phillip Rivers will be important in slowing down an impressive Chargers offense.
The natural thought is that Trey Flowers will be crucial to this plan. He will, considering that he is the team's most talented pass rusher. But for that reason, the Chargers will likely focus on him. This means that players like Dont'a Hightower, Deatrich Wise, and Adam Butler, need to find a way to create pressure on Rivers. They need to be able to win one-on-one matchups, and not allow Rivers time to make clean throws.
The Patriots secondary has quietly been one of the best units in the NFL, partly due to First-Team All-Pro Stephon Gilmore. They will have their hands full on Sunday with a talented Chargers receiving unit. Stopping Mike Williams and Keenan Allen will not be "easy", but it will be something that the team won't have to focus too much time on. Gilmore and Jason McCourty have performed well all season. The strategy will likely be the same, with the two cornerbacks locked up in man coverage on Allen and Williams. This will give away some plays but should prevent the two from finding holes in zone coverage.
The issue will be covering Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin. Jonathan Jones and the Patriots safeties will need to be disciplined in their approach, and not get beat on deep routes.
Tackling will be a huge component of the game for every Patriots defender. The Chargers have talented skill players, particularly with Gordon and Ekeler. The Patriots will naturally try to keep everything contained underneath so as not to get beat on deep routes. This means that tackling will be absolutely critical to not giving up extra yards after the catch. Devin McCourty has been the team's best tackler all season, followed closely by Patrick Chung. They, along with Kyle Van Noy who has had a career season, will be absolutely critical to stalling the Chargers drives. LA converts on less than 40% of their third downs, and good tackling will help the Patriots keep that pace.
The Chargers are undoubtedly one of the most talented teams that the Patriots have faced all season. They have a solid group of coaches who should be able to keep them grounded. They have few weak spots on either side of the ball. It would not be unfathomable for them to come out on top.
However, this is still a team that has had next to no playoff experience in recent memory. The Patriots have struggled at times this season, but they still have more than enough talent to win another Lombardi Trophy this season. While the dynasty may be "over" as we know it, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady still seem to have a little left in the tank.
New England 27 Los Angeles 20