The New England Patriots will face their greatest challenge yet on Sunday when they play host to the surging Los Angeles Chargers.
After taking a week off to rest and focus inwardly, the New England Patriots now shift their attention to their divisional round opponent, the Los Angeles Chargers.
About 10 years ago, these two teams ruled the AFC along with the Indianapolis Colts. Those were the days of Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, and Peyton Manning all jockeying for wins and statistical dominance. Each prolific quarterback had his super-weapons: Manning had Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne; Rivers had Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson; and Brady had Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
Brady and the Patriots beat Rivers and the Chargers in back-to-back postseasons back in 2006 and 2007. Since then, the two franchises have gone in completely opposite directions.
The Patriots have played in five separate Super Bowls, winning two and losing three. The Chargers have only made the playoffs three times, losing in the divisional round each instance.
Conventional wisdom and recent history suggests that the Patriots will have no problem extending their superior postseason record against the Chargers on Sunday, but fans looking past L.A. do so at their own peril. An eighth consecutive conference title game appearance is certainly within reach for New England – especially with this game coming at home, where the Patriots are the league’s only undefeated team this season (8-0).
Then again, the Chargers are 7-1 on the road, and that solo loss came right across town playing against the Rams at the L.A. Coliseum. Even many of the Chargers’ home games have felt at times like they were away, due to the small size of their temporary stadium and the freshness of the team’s return to Los Angeles.
In other words, head coach Anthony Lynn’s roster isn’t likely to get too fazed playing a January playoff game in Foxborough. They have had a whole season’s worth of practice tuning out hostile crowd noise and playing with little to no support in the stands.
On paper at least, a reputable argument can be made that L.A. is actually better than New England. The Chargers finished the regular season with a better overall record (12-4) than the Patriots (11-5), but were relegated to Wild Card status due to their sharing a division with Kansas City.
Brady and Rivers had very similar numbers on the year in terms of touchdowns, passing yards, and interceptions – though Rivers’ completion percentage and overall quarterback rating surpassed Brady’s. Sony Michel had slightly more rush yards than Melvin Gordon, but Gordon had a full 4 more touchdowns on the year. And at receiver, no Patriots player came close to the kind of production Keenan Allen enjoyed in his sixth season.
Defensively, the two teams are a little further apart. The Chargers were the ninth-best defense in terms of yards allowed; the Patriots finished a distant 21st in the same metric. The gap narrows when it comes to scoring defense though, with the Patriots actually coming in just ahead of the Chargers in the final rankings as the seventh and eighth-best teams, respectively.
The problem for New England is that Los Angeles is just so incredibly balanced across the board. They’re ranked No. 9 against the run. They’re also No. 9 against the pass. They have not one, but two Pro Bowl-caliber defensive ends that can make life miserable for Brady, in stars Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa.
Ingram, in particular, is coming off a ludicrously-impressive showing in the Wild Card round against the Baltimore Ravens, where he had 7 tackles, 2 sacks, and a forced fumble. Patriots tackles Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon will certainly have their hands full on the edges holding both Ingram and Bosa at bay.
If New England hopes to make it out of the divisional round, they’ll need to do two things above all else on Sunday: keep Brady upright against the Chargers pass rush/interior pressure and establish the ground game.
Essentially, that means this game could very well come down to the Patriots offensive line. If the unit plays well (as they have for most of this season) and does a consistent job of opening up running lanes for Michel, James White, and Rex Burkhead, then the Patriots can wear out the L.A. defense with long, slow, methodical scoring drives. Not only will that help tire out the opposing pass rush… it will also keep Rivers on the sideline – fuming and cursing like he always does, most likely – but safely rendered ineffective.
Early weather forecasts also call for cold temperatures and perhaps even snow, which presumably would favor a team like the Patriots over the Chargers, who call sunny southern California their home.
It will be a tall task for New England to prevail in this one, but should the offensive linemen all do their jobs on Sunday, another AFC championship game appearance seems within reach for this team.