I picked Los Angeles to lose last week to the Ravens, and boy was I wrong. Now, I’m halfway thinking about picking the Chargers to win straight-up in New England. Why? Because I think L.A. is the better team. Philip Rivers has played better than Tom Brady this year. The Chargers have a better No. 1 running back in Melvin Gordon and a better No. 1 receiver in Keenan Allen. The Chargers are surging, and this is the worst New England team in recent memory. And remember, L.A. has been dominant in 1 p.m. ET games on the East Coast this year. New England, of course, has a few positives. The Patriots have won their last 10 playoff games at home, and Bill Belichick, probably the greatest NFL coach in history, is going against a coach in Anthony Lynn who has been only in charge of a team for 35 games. Still, I’m going with the Chargers. Rivers is 1-7 vs. the Patriots in his lifetime, but on Sunday, he’ll get victory No. 2.
Los Angeles is coming off a dominating win over a Baltimore team that featured a top defense and a ball control offense, albeit one dimensional and led by a rookie QB. The challenge will be different this week: another cross-country trip, colder weather and Hall of Fame-bound QB in Tom Brady leading a veteran team that has been to seven consecutive AFC title games. Los Angeles is 8-1 on the road while New England was the only perfect team at home this season. Chargers QB Philip Rivers has a 1-7 record against the Patriots, including 0-4 in games in Foxborough and 0-2 in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Brady is 2-0 in the playoffs and 6-2 in the regular-season against the Chargers. But this Patriots team is not stacked. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is a shadow of himself and the receivers have trouble getting open. Brady has been able to make up for offensive deficiencies throughout his career, but, at 41, those days and games are fewer and fewer. That said, this will probably feature throws to running backs by both teams, as each has had troubles defending pass-catching running backs. The Chargers' top back, Melvin Gordon (885 yards, 10 TDs), has a knee injury sustained against the Ravens. Rivers has plenty of options at receiver and top tight end Hunter Henry is slated to make his return. Los Angeles has a top defense, anchored by Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram (seven sacks) on the line and rookie Derwin James in the secondary.
The Chargers showed last week in Baltimore they have the one element Tom Brady fears most – pressure. Not only do they bring it with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, but they get star defensive lineman Brandon Mebane back for the game. Brady is starting to look a little like a 41-year-old quarterback, but not as much at home. Don’t forget, the Patriots were the only NFL team to go unbeaten at home this season. How do you think the league will feel about the AFC title game being played in a 27,000-seat boutique stadium?
No one should be surprised if the Patriots find a way to win — that’s what they do — but the Chargers were a better team this season, and Rivers has a good chance of surprising everyone and finally beating Brady.
Los Angeles is the best road team in the NFL as evidenced by its 8-0 record away from LA county this season. Anthony Lynn’s squad had the best yards per play differential on the road this season and allowed just 5.27 yards per play away from StubHub Center against some quality offenses, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chiefs, Rams and Seahawks. Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler should have effective games against a rush defense that’s allowed nearly five yards per carry. The only way I see the Patriots winning is if they use their short-pass game to exploit the Chargers’ weakness against pass-catching running backs. LA allowed the most receiving yards to running backs this season. That said, LA is the more complete team in all three phases of the game and should be able to keep the score within the number.
The Chargers are playing consecutive road games on the East Coast, while the Patriots are coming off a bye.
The betting line should probably be a field goal since the Chargers might be the better overall team. Los Angeles won more games than New England in the regular season, and they finished ahead of the Patriots in both yards per play and yards per play allowed. No team has beaten Tom Brady and Bill Belichick at home this season, but if anyone can do it, it’s probably the Chargers. L.A. is 8-1 on the road, including the playoffs.
Bill Belichick vs. Anthony Lynn; 8,000 miles of air travel vs. rest. Those are the only two (admittedly significant) factors keeping this from being a slam-dunk play on the Chargers. Los Angeles will have to overcome some major disadvantages. Good thing the Chargers have shown the talent and played with the efficiency throughout the season to do so. They’re better than the Patriots, even though this line doesn’t imply so. The Chargers won one more game and posted a near-identical point differential — plus-99 to the Patriots’ plus-101 — despite playing a schedule that dwarfed the Patriots’ in terms of toughness by every metric. There’s such an aura around Belichick and Tom Brady in the playoffs that it’s easy to forget that their success isn’t a given. This is the weakest New England team since 2013, when it lost to Denver in the AFC Championship Game. The Chargers are unlikely to win on the road forever — maybe next week is when it catches up to them — but they’re strong enough to snag one more victory. This number shouldn’t be higher than a field goal.
New England will try winning with a run-heavy approach, but eventually, LA will push its opponent into passing too much. Brady will face plenty of heat from Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram to keep him from another magical playoff moment as Rivers enjoys his finest one.
Either way, there are reasons to like the Chargers; they have the No. 8 defense (10th in run defense, 10th in pass defense) and the No. 3 offense (first in rushing, fifth in passing). The Patriots, meanwhile, are No. 5 in offense (ninth in passing, fourth in rushing) but just No. 16 in defense (19th in run defense, 14th in pass defense).
Here's an interesting trend for the Patriots in divisional-round games: after seeing the total go under in every game from 2001-2007 (six games) the Patriots have seen the total go over in every single one of their divisional round games since (eight consecutive games). This total (47) would be the third-lowest of all those games. The Patriots have averaged 35 points per game over that stretch.
These are not your older brother's Patriots (as partly shown by the lack of a comeback in the 2018 Super Bowl). They also have struggled so far this winter in two of their last four games, and one could argue a third. After losses on the road at Miami and Pittsburgh, they came home and played mediocre in beating Buffalo, before wiping out the could-care-less Jets in Week 17 when they needed to secure a bye.
There’s been a lot of talk this week — and this season — about the Chargers’ pass-rushing tandem of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, and understandably so. They’re sick. But don’t you think head coach Bill Belichick knows that and will do everything possible to minimize arguably the Chargers’ biggest strength? Don’t be surprised if the Patriots’ offense is extremely run-heavy and reliant on more screen plays than shots downfield. The Chargers had the 26th-ranked run defense this season, per Pro Football Focus, and the Patriots have a talented array of ball-carriers — White, Burkhead, Sony Michel, Cordarrelle Patterson and even Julian Edelman — capable of gashing the Bolts.
A lot of people think the Patriots are as vulnerable as they’ve ever been, especially for a home game in the divisional round. The Chargers are that good. If Los Angeles has one glaring weakness, however, it’s covering running backs out of the backfield. No team allowed more receiving yards to running backs this season, and few, if any, backs are better pass-catchers than James White, who led the team in receptions. Just go back to last season, when the Patriots beat the Bolts 31-23 behind 12 catches and 153 yards combined from White and Rex Burkhead. And if you go back to the games the Chargers lost this season, two trends stick out in all of them: turnovers and penalties. Those are two areas in which the Patriots rarely come up short.
Since 2011, the Patriots are 7-0 in the divisional round and they've scored an average of 37.1 points in those games. The thing I like about the Patriots this year is that I think they'll come out of their playoff bye completely refreshed. With Rob Gronkowski's body falling apart and Tom Brady getting aches where 41-year-olds get aches, no team needed the bye more than New England and they got it, and I don't think they're going to waste it.
Yes, the Chargers are talented on both sides of the ball, and they have been known to buck the trend of West Coast teams flopping on the East Coast. But Philip Rivers is winless at New England, and his team hasn’t won there since Drew Brees was playing for Chargers.