By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots now know which team will be trekking to Gillette for a divisional round matchup next Sunday afternoon, and this is no tomato can.
After beating the Ravens 23-17 on Sunday in Baltimore, the L.A. Chargers earned themselves a trip to Foxboro for a playoff game next week. The winner will of course advance to the AFC Championship Game the following Sunday.
There will be an entire week of buildup, hype, scouting and analysis for this game. But for the time being, here’s an early look at all you need to know about the Chargers team that will be heading to Foxboro.
That much should be obvious, but, well, this has not always been the case when teams visit New England for the divisional round. Unlike the Tim Tebow-led Broncos or the Brock Osweiler-led Texans, the Chargers are a legitimate opponent. They went 12-4 in the regular season, which was tied for the best record in the AFC and was just one game back of the best record in the NFL. They went 5-1 after Thanksgiving. They shared four opponents with New England and went 4-1 in those games (twice playing the Chiefs). The Patriots went 2-2 against those common opponents. They lost badly in Week 16 to Baltimore but convincingly avenged that loss on Sunday.
This is not the pushover team that simply shows up to Gillette to lose. This is a real-deal, heavy-duty playoff football team.
They’ve Been Monsters On The Road
What’s helpful about the preparation for this game is that we can automatically dispel the notion that a team from Southern California can’t fly across the country and win a playoff game outdoors in the Northeast. The Chargers just proved in Baltimore that they can.
And that was just a continuation of their road excellence this season. Officially, they’re 7-1 on the road, but they’ve actually been better than that. That road loss came against the Rams … in Los Angeles. That was a 12-mile road trip up the 110.
The Chargers also won a “home game” in London. So now, after Sunday’s win, they’re 9-0 in games the required them to board an airplane.
Of course, the Patriots went undefeated at home this season, and they’ve won 15 in a row in Foxboro (playoffs included). In that stretch was a win over the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 8 of the 2017 season. The Patriots are, obviously, a force in their own building. But the Chargers’ excellence on the road will help to neutralize that advantage.
The Raw Numbers
Here’s where the Chargers ranked in some key categories this season.
OFFENSE: 11th, 372.6 yards per game
SCORING: T-6th, 26.8 points per game
DEFENSE: 9th, 333.7 yards allowed per game
SCORING DEFENSE: 8th, 20.6 points allowed per game
PASSING: 10th, 255.6 yards per game
PASSING: 3rd, 8.4 yards per attempt
PASSING: T-8th, 32 touchdowns
RUSHING: 15th, 117.1 yards per game
RUSHING: 7th, 4.7 yards per attempt
RUSHING: T-7th, 16 touchdowns
TURNOVER RATIO: T-15th, +1
FUMBLE RECOVERIES: T-19th, 7
SACKS: T-19th, 38
PASSING TDS ALLOWED: 12th-fewest, 23
INTs: T-15th, 13
OPPONENT PASSER RATING: 9th, 89.1
RUSHING YARDS ALLOWED: 9th-fewest, 105.8 per game
RUSHING YARDS ALLOWED: 12th, 4.3 per carry
RUSHING TDS ALLOWED: T-6th fewest, 11
For points of comparison …
The Patriots ranked fifth offensively in yards and fourth in points. Defensively, New England ranked 21st in yards allowed and seventh in points allowed.
For the Chargers …
Quarterback Philip Rivers ranked eighth in the NFL in passing yards, third in yards per attempt, tied for sixth in touchdown passes, and fifth in passer rating. (Tom Brady ranked seventh, 13th, 10th and 12th in those respective categories.)
Running back Melvin Gordon ranked 17th in the NFL with 885 rushing yards, while Austin Ekeler ranked 34th with 554 yards on the ground. Gordon ranked eighth in the NFL with 5.1 yards per attempt, one of just 10 backs to average five or more yards per carry. Gordon’s 10 rushing touchdowns were good to rank him sixth in the league.
The Chargers carry a pair of receivers who can pick up huge chunks of yardage very quickly. Tyrel Williams averaged 15.9 yards per reception this year, while Mike Williams was not far behind at 15.4 yards per catch. The two Williamses ranked 11th and 13th, respectively, in that category. Keenan Allen, at 12.3 yards per reception, was not too shabby in that area.
Mike Williams caught 10 touchdowns, which tied him for sixth-most in the NFL.
Cordarrelle Patterson May Find Himself With Numerous Opportunities
If the Chargers do put some points on the board, then Cordarrelle Patterson figures to have a few chances to immediately respond.
That’s at least one takeaway from Sunday’s game, when Chargers kicker Michael Badgley did not appear capable of kicking the ball into the end zone on a cold, windy day in Baltimore. His five kickoffs only made it to the 5-yard line, the 3-yard line, the 2-yard line, the 12-yard line, and the 4-yard line.
Patterson, who earned Second Team All-Pro honors but did end the year with a knee injury, figures to have a big chance if Badgley can’t boot it over the goal line next week.
For that matter, expect the Patriots to look to exploit some special teams weaknesses that L.A. exposed on Sunday, when Baltimore blocked a punt and a field goal.
UPDATE: Scratch that. The Chargers signed a kickoff specialist this week.
Their Defense Is Going To Have To … Adjust
The Chargers’ defense did a great job against Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson on Sunday. A really, really good job. Perhaps a historic job, some would say.
But … wellllllll. Tom Brady figures to be slightly better at passing the football than Lamar Jackson. Slightly.
Lamar Jackson may end up being many things in the NFL, but for the time being, he’s not at all a capable passer. That much was crystal clear in the wild-card round, when he was held to just 2-for-8 for 17 yards with no touchdowns and one interception in an entire half of football. Jackson also fumbled twice without being touched, which is not ideal. (The numbers looked better in the end thanks to some fourth quarter passing, but we all know what defined that game.)
Tom Brady? He is better than that. And the Greatest QB Of All Time spent his bye week working with his throwing coach. So for as much as the Chargers have to feel good about from Sunday, they know that life won’t be so easy in Foxboro.
Their Offense Can Breathe A Sigh Of Relief
At the same time, Phil Rivers and Co. can expect at least a little bit of relief when they see the Patriots’ defense lining up across from them instead of that ferocious Baltimore defense. The Ravens’ defense was truly one of the fiercest units in the league this year, and they showed up in a big way against the Chargers. It was Baltimore’s offense and special teams that really let the Ravens down.
So, while the Patriots’ defense is good, it’s not nearly the dominating force that is Baltimore’s D. The Chargers should be able to do a lot more than they did in Baltimore.
They’re Exceptional At Creating Wide Open Opportunities On Two-Point Conversions
If this game comes down to a two-point conversion, the Patriots should perhaps make sure to try to cover the receivers on the field. That may seem fundamental, but this fella here was so open in Kansas City that he started celebrating before even making the catch:
And then, in Baltimore on wild card weekend:
Maybe the Patriots can’t cover everyone on such plays. But they should at least try to put a hat on Mike Williams.
Melvin Gordon May Not Be At Full Speed
Arguably L.A.’s best player, Gordon’s been dealing with injuries for the past month-and-a-half. He missed three games in December with a knee injury, and he suffered an ankle injury in Week 16 that slowed him down in Week 17 and for wild card weekend. And during that playoff game in Baltimore, he hurt his left knee on a run near the goal line.
He was able to return after suffering that injury, and he rushed for a touchdown in the second half. But clearly, the Gordon who visits Foxboro will not be the same player who averaged 5.4 yards per carry and 10 yards per catch from the start of the season through early November.
Antonio Gates Is Going To Box Out A Defender And Haul In At Least One Catch For A First Down
He may physically occupy some more space these days, but Hall of Famer Antonio Gates still has some tricks up his sleeves. It may not be with speed, or power, or anything but body positioning, but you can count on him moving the chains at least once next week with a simple little stop route.
It’ll look ridiculous. But it’s totally going to happen.
Not Much History
The Patriots don’t often play against the Chargers, but here’s their most recent history:
2017, in New England: Patriots 21, Chargers 13
2014, in San Diego: Patriots 23, Chargers 14
2011, in New England: Patriots 35, Chargers 21
2010, in San Diego: Patriots 23, Chargers 20
2008, in San Diego: Chargers 30, Patriots 10
2007 (postseason), in New England: Patriots 21, Chargers 12
2007, in New England: Patriots 38, Chargers 14
In total, the Patriots have gone 8-3 against the Chargers (including 2-0 in the playoffs) since Bill Belichick became head coach.
Brady has completed 67 percent of his passes with 15 TDs and 5 INTs and a 97.3 rating against the Chargers in the regular season. In his two playoff games against the Chargers, he’s actually been quite bad: 49-for-84 (58.3%), 489 yards, four touchdowns, six interceptions.
Rivers has lost five of his six starts against the Patriots, only winning when he was opposed by Matt Cassel. He’s thrown 10 TDs and 7 INTs vs. Belichick-coached defenses.
Anthony Lynn Is Their Head Coach
He’s maybe not a very outspoken coach, and he’s not often the subject of debate topics on all of those shows where the hosts yell at each other. But he’s through two years of coaching the Chargers, and he’s compiled a nifty 21-12 record, plus now a 1-0 postseason record.
He owns the distinction of serving as interim head coach of the Buffalo Bills after Rex Ryan was fired in 2016. He lost his one game in charge of the Bills, a fitting homage to Rex.
You’re Going To Call Them “San Diego” One Hundred Times
We are humans. We are flawed. We’ll all probably say “San Diego” a few times between now and Sunday. Let’s be kind to each other when this happens, and let’s not mock or ridicule. Mistakes happen.