Breaking down the Chargers-Patriots AFC divisional playoff game on Sunday:
Los Angeles Chargers (13-4) at New England Patriots (11-5)
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. EST … Gillette Stadium … CTV/CBS … Radio: TSN 1050 Toronto, TSN 690 Montreal, TSN 1200 Ottawa, TSN 1260 Edmonton, TSN 1040 Vancouver … Weather: Mostly sunny, -3C, Winds 5-10 km/h … Line: Patriots by 4.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
1. New England’s play count: We don’t often see a clearly flustered Tom Brady in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. When it does happen, history tells us we are looking at a Patriots loss. Thing is, even if the Pats are trailing by the fourth, they often steal victory nonetheless if they’ve run a lot of plays to that point. Right – because they’ve tired out the defence, no matter how effective its pass rush might have been earlier in the game. So expect New England to employ a lot of hurry-up, for that very purpose.
2. Philip’s follies: Chargers QB Philip Rivers has never defeated the Patriots when Brady played – 0-for-7, with more picks (10) than TDs (7). At Gillette Stadium he’s 0-4. Will he press too hard and make killer gaffes?
3. The post-Christmas rush: The Pats offence looked best this year when they ran it a bunch. Rookie Sony Michel deserve more accolades. But Baltimore, the NFL’s top rushing team down the stretch, couldn’t run it a lick last week against the Ravens’ seven-DB defensive alignment.
4. Tricks: Bill Belichick will employ as many tricks as required to flip momentum in a playoff game. Remember that funky offensive alignment he sprung on the Ravens a few years ago? Or the occasional Julian Edelman pass?
5. Kickers and experience: The Chargers PK is a rookie, Michael Badgley. This is his 12th career NFL game. He showed no nerves in making five critical field goals a week ago at Baltimore, second most in an NFL playoff game. And overall he has made 94% of his field goals so far. Thirteenth-year Pats PK Stephen Gostkowski hit on only 84% of his field goals this year, but has played in 24 more career playoff games. That might count at crunch time.
INSIDE THE GAME
The Patriots have won 15 straight at home, counting last year’s playoffs. The most recent visiting team to win at Gillette Stadium was Carolina, 33-30 on Oct. 1, 2017 … The Chargers have won 10 straight outside LA, counting last week. The most recent team outside LA to beat the Chargers on home turf was Kansas City, 30-13, on Dec. 16, 2017 … Since opening the 2017 season 0-4, the Chargers including playoffs are 22-7. In that time the Patriots including playoffs are 23-8 … Since 1970, the Patriots are 2-0 vs. the Chargers in the playoffs. Both games pitted Brady vs. Rivers. New England won 24-21 in the 2007 divisional round, and 21-12 in the 2008 AFC title game.
Tom Brady vs. Melvin Ingram & Joey Bosa
The best chance Los Angeles, or any team, has to beat New England is to rattle Brady – get him off his game. If not, you’d better be prepared to have a historically great day on offence. See last February’s Super Bowl. The Chargers possess outstanding edge rushers in Ingram and Bosa. In last Sunday’s wild-card win at Baltimore the Chargers had seven sacks of Lamar Jackson. Ingram was especially disruptive, with three TFLs, a sack, a forced fumble and a recovered fumble. Will the Pats employ more tempo, more quick-strike passes and run more often on passing downs as antidotes?
Chargers RB Melvin Gordon reportedly sprained a knee at Baltimore. Despite not practising Wednesday and being limited Thursday and Friday, he’s not even listed as questionable so he’ll start. Chargers TE Hunter Henry practised fully all week but is questionable. He hasn’t played all year after tearing an ACL in May.
The Chargers. New England’s offence isn’t wobbly as portrayed. But LA is as grizzled a road team as we’ve seen. Rivers has been brilliant this year. Against an aging Patriots defence that struggles to bring pressure, and in tame weather, it’ll be Rivers’ big day. Prediction: Chargers 27, Patriots 17.
Per game (NFL rank)
Points for: 26.8 (6th)
Points against: 20.6 (8th)
Rush yards: 117 (15th)
Pass yards: 256 (10th)
Total yards: 373 (11th)
Total yards against: 334 (9th)
Per game (NFL rank)
Points for: 27.3 (4th)
Points against: 20.3 (7th)
Rush yards: 127 (5th)
Pass yards: 266 (8th)
Total yards: 393 (5th)
Total yards against: 359 (21st)