By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots and Chargers will both have their seasons on the line when they face off Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium. And as you’re surely aware, these are two teams that don’t have much familiarity with each other.
With that in mind, and with the countdown to Sunday officially ticking, here’s a spotlight on some of the more dangerous players from the Chargers who figure to present the biggest challenge to the Patriots.
Safety: Derwin James
The first-round pick out of Florida State has had himself quite the rookie year.
James started all 16 games, recording three interceptions and defending 13 passes overall, while also record 105 total tackles (75 solo, 30 assists). He also recorded 3.5 sacks, for good measure. Add it all up, and it was enough for James to be named a First Team All-Pro at safety in his first NFL season. James also earned Second Team All-Pro honors as a defensive back.
And at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, James just might draw the assignment of manning up against Rob Gronkowski to start Sunday’s game. How well or how poorly he does in that regard may go a long way in determining how well or how poorly Tom Brady’s passing offense can function. While it is true that we may be just past the days of considering Gronkowski to be the focal point of a Super Bowl-caliber offense, the obvious fact remains that it’s a lot easier to play defense against the Patriots if a team does not have to worry about double-teaming the hulking tight end. If Gronkowski can get the best of James early, it could disrupt L.A.’s entire defensive gameplan.
Running Back: Melvin Gordon
This one’s interesting. Everyone knows that Gordon is a tremendous weapon out of the backfield. Coming off a 997-yard rushing campaign in 2016 and a 1,105-yard season last year, Gordon was well on his way to another thousand-plus-yard season before hurting his knee in late November.
At that point, he had 802 rushing yards and 453 receiving yards (along with 13 total touchdowns) in 10 games played. After that, though, he’d rush for just 83 yards and pick up 37 receiving yards in the final two games of the regular season. He did score a touchdown in Baltimore on Sunday, but he rushed for just 40 yards on 17 carries, caught just one pass for three yards, and he also suffered a knee injury … to his good knee.
Gordon did return from that early knee injury, but he’s clearly not expected to be at full speed. (He also suffered an ankle injury in Week 16 that had him on L.A.’s injury report the past two weeks.)
But, considering the Patriots ranked 29th in yards allowed per rush at 4.9, there figures to be some opportunity for the Chargers to move the ball on the ground.
If Gordon can’t do it, the Chargers may lean on Austin Ekeler, who ran for 554 yards and three touchdowns on 106 carries this season, while also catching 39 passes for 404 yards and three more scores.
Defensive End: Melvin Ingram
Keeping it with the Melvins here, Ingram was the star of the show for the L.A. defense this past weekend. He led all Chargers with seven solo tackles, and he also recorded a pair of sacks and a forced fumble.
He is … tough to stop
Ingram led the Chargers with seven sacks this season, while also recording one interception, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. The Patriots did limit Ingram’s impact when the teams met last year, as he had just two solo tackles. But generally, if you stop one, you can’t always stop the other …
Defensive End: Joey Bosa
“The Other,” in this case, is of course Joey Bosa, who himself presents a ton of difficult matchups across the line. Bosa had one sack and another QB hit on Sunday in Baltimore, after recording 5.5-sacks in just seven games played this season. The third overall pick in 2016, Bosa got to Brady once when the Chargers visited the Patriots last year.
Obviously, getting to Brady will be a focus of the Chargers’ defense. And while some defensive backs will no doubt be employed to catch the Patriots off guard with some blitzes, the down-to-down work of Bosa and Ingram should require the most attention.
Cornerback: Desmond King
Keeping it on the defensive side of the ball, Desmond King should likewise present some issues for Josh McDaniels. Specifically, he just might be a problem for Julian Edelman, as King is among the best slot corners in the league. He’s got himself a spot on the First Team All-Pro to prove it.
King was selected as an All-Pro not as a cornerback but as a “Defensive Back,” a spot that was added to account for corners who spend most of their time on the inside.
The second-year pro picked off three passes — returning one for a touchdown — while defending 10 passes and recording 61 total tackles. Last year, as a rookie vs. the Patriots, he recorded one sack and four tackles. He had a sack on Lamar Jackson last week, and he proved to be doubly dangerous by returning a kickoff 72 yards in Baltimore.
In addition to the First Team All-Pro spot at defensive back, King was also named to the Second Team All-Pro as a punt returner. He averaged 13.8 yard per punt return this year, breaking one for a 73-yard touchdown.
On defense and special teams, Kings ought to be one of L.A.’s most important players on Sunday.
Safety/Special Teamer: Adrian Phillips
We might as well finish out the crop of Chargers All-Pros, as Adrian Phillips earned the spot on the First Team as a special teamer. That’s certainly enough to garner the attention of Matthew Slater, at the very least.
But Phillips is much more than a special teamer for the Chargers, as he took 66 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season. He still managed to record the second-most solo tackles (65) on the whole team. He recorded a career-high 12 tackles last year against the Patriots.
Phillips picked off Jackson on Sunday, making a diving catch after the pass — well-covered by Casey Hayward — to Willie Snead was deflected into the air.
Cornerback: Casey Hayward
Oh yeah. Don’t forget about this guy, who in 2017 firmly established himself as one of the best corners in the entire league. While his 2018 season may not have maintained that same level, the 29-year-old remains more than capable of making a big-time play in a big-time moment.
Quarterback: Philip Rivers
Wide Receivers: Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Tyrell Williams
Philip Rivers. You’ve surely heard his name once or twice over the years, and you know the deal with him: He’s fine — pretty good most days, amazing some days, not so good on some other days. While he may not be the world’s most prolific passer, he’s more than capable of chucking up some pinpoint deep balls, and he showed in Baltimore that he’s not afraid to waltz into a hostile environment and win a game.
Rivers’ numbers were pedestrian last week (22-for-32, 160 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs), but that was against perhaps the best defense in the NFL. He’ll have more opportunities against the Patriots.
And when he throws, you can bet he’ll mostly be looking for the trio of Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Tyrell Williams. Those three receivers accounted for roughly 75 percent of Rivers’ targets to non-running backs this season.
Allen caught 97 balls for 1,196 yards and six touchdowns. Mike Williams caught 10 touchdowns, as part of his 43-catch, 664-yard season. And Tyrell Williams caught 41 passes for 653 yards and five touchdowns.
With Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, and J.C. Jackson, the Patriots clearly have the personnel to try to limit their impact. But in today’s NFL, only the Baltimores of the world can fully stop a passing attack. The key for the Patriots will be containing those three in order to limit the damage.
Kicker: Michael Badgley
Yup. We’re listing a kicker. (In case you missed the end of the Eagles-Bears game, kickers can be important this time of year.)
The undrafted rookie has had himself quite a whirlwind year. After finishing as the all-time leader in field goals made at the University of Miami, Badgley was not called on draft weekend. He was eventually picked up by the Colts, but didn’t beat out 75-year-old Adam Vinatieri for the job. Badgley remained unemployed for a month, right around the time that the Chargers decided life would be better without Caleb Sturgis around.
And all Badgley’s done since then is be nearly perfect.
The 23-year-old made 15 of his 16 field goals in the regular season, plus he went 27-for-28 on PATs. His lone miss came from 52 yards in Pittsburgh in December; he’d end that game by nailing a game-winning 29-yarder (after the comical series of offside penalties on Pittsburgh).
And last week, on a cool, blustery day in Baltimore, he went 5-for-6 on his field goals, his lone miss coming when Baltimore blocked a 41-yard attempt.
The weather this week figures to once again be cold, with perhaps some precipitation if the weather gods deem it worthy. And in what will be a meeting of two of the very best teams in the AFC, the kicker’s almost certainly going to play a prominent role in determining the outcome.
Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-Chargers divisional round clash on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots! Coverage begins Friday night with Patriots All Access at 7 p.m., and kicks off on Sunday with a special hour-long edition of Patriots GameDay at 11 a.m.! We’ll break it all down and hear from Bill Belichick and Tom Brady LIVE on Patriots 5th Quarter on WBZ-TV after the game!