Two things have been essential to the New England Patriots being the best NFL team over the last two decades — a bye week and home-field advantage. After having the week off, the New England Patriots hope to use home field to their advantage and reach the AFC title game for the eighth consecutive season Sunday when they face a Los Angeles Chargers team making its second cross-country trek to the East Coast in as many weeks.
All eight of New England’s Super Bowl appearances with head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have come with the Patriots (11-5) at least having a bye into the divisional round and home-field for at least one game. As the No. 2 seed this postseason, New England would host the AFC title game only if Indianapolis defeats Kansas City in the other divisional semifinal, and it carries an eight-game postseason home winning streak into this contest since its 28-13 loss to Baltimore in the 2013 AFC championship game.
This will be the third time Brady will face Chargers counterpart Philip Rivers in the postseason, having emerged victorious in the divisional round in San Diego in the 2007 playoffs and again in the conference title game at home the following year.
Rivers, though, was far from being at his physical best in that second contest, gamely trying to battle through a torn ACL. His standout running back LaDainian Tomlinson was also severely hampered by injury as the Chargers were within 14-12 in the fourth quarter before eventually losing 21-12.
Rivers, in fact, has never beaten Brady in seven head-to-head matchups, including the postseason. His only win in eight career matchups against the Patriots came in 2008 after Brady had torn his ACL in the opening week of that season.
(Stay tuned to this space because there will be videos, quotes and picks Friday!)
A Quick Review of the Season to Date
Los Angeles Chargers Review
Los Angeles (13-4) is coming off its first playoff win in five years after holding off Baltimore 23-17 on the road in the wild-card round Sunday. The Chargers got just enough offense from Rivers and running back Melvin Gordon III, getting one touchdown and four field goals by Michael Badgley.
But it was the defense that delivered in grand style, limiting Baltimore to three first downs over the first three quarters and frustrating rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson until his late fourth-quarter comeback fell short. The Chargers recorded a season-best seven sacks and forced three turnovers, with the final sack by Uchenna Nwosu resulting in a fumble that Melvin Ingram III recovered.
The win restored some of the confidence in pundits who had considered the Chargers arguably the most complete team in the conference and possibly the league. Dating back to its 21-13 loss at New England in Week 8 of last season, Los Angeles has won 19 of its last 25 games with Sunday’s victory over Baltimore.
Despite being held under 300 yards for the fourth time in five games, the Chargers are 4-1 during that stretch. The defense has bailed out the offense to a degree, matching the eight giveaways with eight takeaways in that span.
New England Patriots Review
The Patriots maintained their status quo in the AFC East, winning their 10th consecutive division title and 15th in the last 16 seasons. New England ran the table at home, highlighted by its wild 43-40 victory over Kansas City in Week 6, and Belichick’s team also recorded home wins over Houston to open the season and Indianapolis in Week 5.
Brady had another phenomenal season, throwing for 4,355 yards and 29 touchdowns as he topped 70,000 regular-season yards for his career. He also joined Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Brett Favre as the only quarterbacks with 500 touchdown passes this season and finished the season three behind Brees for second with 517.
What made the Patriots’ passing game so interesting this year was the rotating cast of characters. No one had more yards than Julian Edelman (850), and he missed the first four games of the season for violating the league’s policy on PEDs. Tight end Rob Gronkowski had another season of battling injuries, missing three contests while finishing with 47 receptions for 682 yards.
For a while, the Patriots had a legitimate deep threat in Josh Gordon, who was acquired in September from the Cleveland Browns. Gordon had a pair of 100-yard games and totaled 40 catches for 720 yards and three touchdowns — all covering 24 or more yards.
Gordon, though, took leave from the team before New England’s Week 16 game against Buffalo to concentrate on personal issues, only for it to be reported almost immediately thereafter he violated the league’s substance policy and was suspended.
The Patriots, though, had one of the league’s better run games this season with first-round pick and rookie running back Sony Michel, who had 931 yards and would have cleared 1,000 with ease had he not missed three games with a sprained knee. New England still has utility back James White, who contributed 425 rushing yards and had team highs of 87 receptions and seven receiving TDs to go with 751 yards.
Running the Ball: Who Has the Edge?
Los Angeles Chargers Rushing Offense
The Chargers did not have a run of longer than 14 yards against Baltimore, gained only three first downs on the ground, and averaged 2.7 yards on their 33 carries. In fact, Rivers’ nine-yard scramble on 3rd-and-8 that set up Badgley’s final field goal was their second-longest run.
But the numbers did not matter because the pounding Gordon and Austin Ekeler took and administered in their 28 combined carries helped Los Angeles hold the ball for nearly 34 minutes, a number the Chargers will likely have to match or possibly better to limit the opportunities Brady and the Patriots offense get.
“I’ve got the postseason to show people that I’m still one of the top guys,” Gordon told the Chargers’ official website, perhaps fresher than originally thought after missing three games late due to a knee injury. “It’ll give me something to work for to next season, and this postseason, to go out there and just show people that I’m one of the best and our team is one of the best teams around.”
Gordon is at his best when he can get to the edge — he averaged better than six yards per carry on 93 such runs, 19 of which resulted in gains of 10 or more yards. With Los Angeles using primarily a three wide-receiver set that the Patriots are expected to counter with a nickle package, there will be opportunities to test New England’s team defense across the width of the field.
New England Patriots Rushing Defense
There have been times this season the Patriots have looked inept trying to stop the run. They were seventh-worst in the league in allowing 61 runs of 10 or more yards — the average amount allowed by the 12 playoff teams was 41.
New England did not win in either game it allowed a 100-yard rusher, and those two players are not household names except in their own houses (Lions RB Kerryon Johnson and Steelers RB Jaylen Samuels — both rookies). After allowing 347 yards on the ground in the losses to Pittsburgh and Miami, New England did tighten up considerably by holding Buffalo and the New York Jets to a combined 176 in the final two games.
The one player who helped reverse some of those fortunes was defensive tackle Danny Shelton, who can take up a lot of space in the middle of the line at 345 pounds.
“He does a great job taking on double teams, redirecting (the run). He can set the edge through the A-Gap,” Deatrich Wise told the Sun Chronicle
about Shelton, who had three tackles in those two games as New England allowed 4.29 yards per carry after giving up 7.54 per rush in the losses to Pittsburgh and Miami.
“There’s some things that probably don’t stick out on stat sheet,” Trey Flowers added, “but you see them.”
If Shelton is on his game, it will limit what Los Angeles is able to do on the ground in the middle, where it prefers to run Ekeler over Gordon. But both runners are good at following their blockers to the right behind tackle Sam Tevi and tight end Virgil Green. Ekeler specificially is has averaged 8.8 yards on 19 rushes outside the right tackle, and Patriots left cornerback J.C. Jackson must provide run support to limit those plays.
Notable Rushing Statistics
Los Angeles Chargers Offense
Los Angeles Chargers Offense
Los Angeles Chargers — 1,873 net rushing yards (15th)
117.1 net rushing yards per game (15th)
399 carries (19th)
24.9 carries per game (19th)
4.69 yards per rush (7th)
16 rushing TDs (T-7th)
Individual Rushing Statistics
Melvin Gordon III — 175 rushes/885 yards/5.06 yards per carry/10 TDs
Austin Ekeler — 106/554/5.23/3
Justin Jackson — 50/206/4.12/2
Keenan Allen — 9/75/8.33/0
Detrez Newsome — 11/49/4.45/0
Travis Benjamin — 7/41/5.7/0
Mike Williams — 7/28/4.0/1
Tyrell Williams — 2/15/7.5/0
Derek Watt — 4/11/2.75/0
Philip Rivers — 18/7/0.39/0
Geno Smith — 8/2/0.25/0
Melvin Ingram — 1/0/0.0/0
J.J. Jones — 1/0/0.0/0
New England Patriots Defense
New England Patriots — 1,803 net rushing yards allowed (11th)
112.7 net rushing yards allowed per game (11th)
367 opponents’ carries (6th fewest)
22.9 opponents’ carries per game (6th)
4.91 opponents’ yards per rush (4th worst)
7 opponents’ rushing touchdowns (2nd fewest)
Individual Rushing Statistics
Kyle Van Noy — 54 solo/35 assist/89 total/4.5 stuff/5 TFL
Patrick Chung — 51/30/81/0/1
Devin McCourty — 55/22/77/0.5/1
Jason McCourty — 53/15/68/1.5/1
Elandon Roberts — 30/33/63/4/6
Lawrence Guy — 25/34/59/1.5/1
Trey Flowers — 32/25/57/3.5/9
Jonathan Jones — 39/11/50/0.5/1
Dont’a Hightower — 24/24/48/1.5/3
Stephon Gilmore — 40/5/45/0/1
Malcom Brown — 19/20/39/0.5/1
Duron Harmon — 32/6/38/0/0
Deatrich Wise Jr. — 15/15/30/1/4
J.C. Jackson — 22/2/24/1/1
Danny Shelton — 10/11/21/1/1
Adam Butler — 8/9/17/1/4
John Simon — 8/9/17/0/2
Adrian Clayborn — 9/2/11/2/3
Keionta Davis — 5/1/6/2/3