Now that we know who the Patriots are playing next weekend, let's dig into some of the matchups that will help determine whether or not the Chargers can prevent Bill Belichick's club from going to its eighth consecutive AFC title game.
TOM BRADY vs. CHARGERS COVER 3
The Patriots have seen opposing defenses mix and match their coverages all season. They've seen man, zone, post-safety, split-safety . . . and certain coordinators have successfully disguised what it was they were doing until late in the play-clock to confuse Tom Brady and his teammates. With the Chargers, the Patriots should know what they're getting. First of all, the Chargers are typically not going to rush more than four. They had the third-lowest blitz (five or more rushers) percentage this season, according to ESPN. They can afford to do that with edge rushers like Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. When it comes to Chargers coverage, there's no secret in terms of what they like scheme-wise. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was one of the architects of the Seattle Cover 3 that has now filtered throughout the league, and the Patriots saw a ton of Cover 3 in last year's Week 8 meeting with the Chargers. Bradley also showed some Cover 1 that day, and he occasionally disguised with two high safeties only to get back into some post-safety coverage. How will Brady handle it? In that meeting against Bradley and the Chargers last year, Brady hit 68.1 percent of his passes for 333 yards and a touchdown. Against the Jags (Bradley's last stop, which still leans on the same principles) in the AFC title game, Brady threw for 290 and two scores. Against the Eagles in the Super Bowl, Brady lit up their post-safety looks to the tune of 505 yards and three scores using some classic single-high coverage beaters we highlighted in our Signature Play series. (The Patriots also saw this scheme in the last two Super Bowls they won, you'll remember.) Against the Jaguars in Week 2 of this season, Brady completed 68.6 percent of his passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns.
PHILIP RIVERS vs. PATRIOTS PRESSURE PACKAGES
Rivers is, without a doubt, having one of the best seasons of his career, though he's had some clunkers of late. He hasn't had a quarterback rating exceeding 100.0 in any of his last five games, but for the season (including Sunday's Wild Card game) his rating is 104.0, which would be the second-highest of his career (106.3 in 2013), per Pro Football Focus. He's sixth in in the NFL in adjusted completion percentage this year, which accounts for throw-aways, spikes, batted passes and passes made while being hit to determine true accuracy. He's sixth in quarterback rating while under pressure (83.8) and sixth in rating when kept clean (115.1). He's rated the second-best passer in the league when outside the pocket this year (119.3 rating, per ESPN) and fifth in the league when inside the pocket (104.0). So what should the Patriots do to rattle him? They could follow the Ravens' lead and blitz him to high heaven. Baltimore sent unexpected rushers at Rivers 17 times Sunday, limiting him to 9-for-14 passing and 78 yards for a 78.9 rating. They sacked him once. Rivers was 8-for-12 with a touchdown and a pick against a dozen Denver blitzes in Week 17. The Ravens sacked Rivers three times on 18 blitzes in Week 16. In Week 15, the Chiefs only allowed two Rivers completions on six blitzes, picking him off once, sacking him once, and allowing a touchdown. Since their Week 11 bye, the Patriots have sent unexpected rushers on 14.7 snaps per game, according to PFF. Utilizing a variety of pressure packages -- including a hard-to-decipher "Amoeba" look -- the Patriots vaulted to the top of the league in terms of pressure percentage on third down, per ESPN (44.9 percent). If the Belichick and Brian Flores can make Rivers uneasy early, expect them to continue to come at him until the Chargers show they can either A) solve it up front, or B) get open quickly enough so they don't have to.
JAMES WHITE vs. CHARGERS LINEBACKERS
Patriots running backs saw 15 targets against the Chargers in last year's meeting, and they should factor in heavily into the Patriots game plan in the Divisional Round as well. That means James White and Rex Burkhead, catching underneath stuff, working the screen game, potentially working a wheel route or two to stress Chargers linebackers. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Chargers are ranked No. 28 in defending backs in the passing game, allowing a success rate of 52 percent. (A "successful" play for Sharp gains 40 percent of yards-to-go on first down, 60 percent on second down and 100 percent on third or fourth down.) How the Chargers choose to check Patriots backs will depend on the situations, but they're in a tight spot at the second level of their defense. They went with a "quarter" package (seven defensive backs) on all but one snap Sunday against the Ravens. That was likely because they knew they'd have to chase around an elite athlete at quarterback for most of the day, and so they eschewed heavy linebackers and defensive linemen for corners and safeties. They probably won't do that against the Patriots, but they'll still have to figure out how to replace linebacker Jatavis Brown. The top snap-getter among Chargers linebackers this season suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 17. If Hayes Pullard is the one to replace him, that could be a good thing for White and Burkhead. Pullard graded out as the seventh-worst linebacker in coverage among players with at least 25 percent playing time in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus. If the Chargers want to go lighter, they could play their first-round Swiss Army knife rookie Derwin James more consistently at the linebacker level. He's successfully checked running backs in the passing game this season and would provide enough punch to play the run if the Patriots go that route. White's usage as a running back this season -- and Burkhead's ability to align wide or run between the tackles -- could put the Chargers in a bind as to how they deploy their front seven. We went over (in detail!) how the Patriots became a little more unpredictable offensively on Saturday.
ROB GRONKOWSKI vs. DERWIN JAMES
This matchup has the potential to be one of the most fascinating in the game. It also feels like it's coming a year too late for the Patriots tight end. Even if it's not Gronkowski at the height of his powers versus one of the best up-and-coming defenders in the game, it's Gronkowski making a playoff push against one of the best up-and-coming defenders in the game. James, in his first year, has already garnered enough respect to be named a First Team All-Pro at safety and Second Team All-Pro at defensive back. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder is athletic enough to play the deep middle portion of the field as a Cover 3 free safety. He's strong and explosive enough to rush off the edge. And he's fluid enough to track both running backs (as we mentioned above) and tight ends in the passing game. It's actually on backs where he's seemingly done most of his damage lately. He allowed just 13 yards on four targets to Royce Freeman and Devontae Booker in Week 17. But tight ends have to see him occasionally as well. He held Travis Kelce to two yards on two catches in Week 15, and Jared Cook was targeted three times without a catch with James on him in Week 10. The Chargers had no problem using linebackers, safeties, and even corners at times on Gronkowski last year. They'll probably be OK with it this year if James ends up on Gronk consistently.
JULIAN EDELMAN vs. DESMOND KING
Edelman is more than a slot receiver. And King is more than a slot corner. But when these two meet up on the inside, don't miss it. This may be the best matchup of the day. They have to be among the pound-for-pound toughest players on their respective teams. Neither fears contact. Both are water bug quick -- with Edelman looking healthier in Week 17 and coming off of a bye. Both play like they enjoy being pains in asses. And both are having tremendous seasons. Though Edelman has been banged up and plagued by drops at times, he's having a typically strong season with four fewer games under his belt due to suspension. He's averaging 6.2 catches per game (6.1 in 2016) and 70.8 yards per game (the only other time he cracked 70.0 was in 2015). In the slot? He's still among the league's best, averaging 1.88 yards per route run from the inside (fifth in the NFL, per PFF). King, meanwhile, was named First Team All-Pro as a defensive back and Second Team All-Pro as a punt returner. He's just the Patriots' type, as a matter of fact. (We pegged the Iowa product as a fit to be New England's "star" corner and return man of the future in our Prototypical Patriots series.) In the slot, King is a menace, with three picks and a 78.9 quarterback rating allowed, which is fourth in the NFL, per PFF. He had a 72-yard kick return and a 33-yard punt return, making his matchup with Joe Judge and the Patriots special teams units equally important to Sunday's outcome.
CHARGERS PASS-RUSHERS vs. PATRIOTS TACKLES
The matchup we get here will be vastly different than the one we saw a year ago, even though Ingram and Bosa are back. Last season, it was Nate Solder and LaAdrian Waddle who saw the majority of the time against the dominant Chargers pass-rushing duo. Now it'll be Trent Brown on the left side and Marcus Cannon (who suffered an injury early in last year's meeting) protecting the edges of the pocket for Brady. Bosa and Ingram combined for a whopping 17 pressures that day, but only two resulted in punishment for Brady -- a Bosa sack and an Ingram hit. Both Bosa and Ingram have exceptional athleticism and use their speed off the edge to their advantage. The Patriots have had their ups and downs with those type. For instance, Cannon held his own against Dee Ford back in Week 6 but had his hands full with T.J. Watt in Week 10. Brown was solid against Bud Dupree in that Steelers game, but looked lost at times against Jerry Hughes the following week. The key for this offensive line as a unit will be allowing Brady an opportunity to step up and into his throws even if pressure is coming from the edges. That means handling guys like Isaac Rochell, Justin Jones and Darius Philon inside. Ingram and Bosa can also be used as interior rushers, as they were against the Ravens, so Joe Thuney (who was beaten by an Ingram spin move last year to allow a hit on Brady), Shaq Mason and David Andrews will all have to have their heads on swivels in pass protection.
STEPHON GILMORE vs. KEENAN ALLEN
Gilmore wasn't available to the Patriots in Week 8 of last season as he dealt with a concussion, so this is sort of an educated guess as to what the matchup will be Sunday. Should there be any question at all that a First Team All-Pro corner shadows a receiver who sees a whopping 26.4 percent of throws sent his way? Well . . . two things: 1) Allen plays a fair amount in the slot and almost half of his targets (47 percent) have come when he's aligned inside; 2) Mike Williams is the Chargers' big-play threat, and has looked the part over the course of the last few weeks. Allen rushed back from injury in Week 16 and since then has caught 13 passes on 18 targets for 159 yards (12.2 yards per catch). Williams, meanwhile, has eight catches on 14 targets for 114 yards (14.3 yards per catch) in that same span. Allen caught four passes for 37 yards Sunday while Williams had two catches for 42 yards. If the Patriots want to handle the duo the same way they handled Minnesota's, then maybe Gilmore will live outside the numbers with Williams (as he did with Stefon Diggs) while the Patriots double Allen inside. One difference between now and Week 13 when the Patriots played the Vikings? J.C. Jackson has continued to improve from that night when he got his first pro start. If the Patriots feel good about Jackson on Williams one-on-one -- and there's reason to believe they should -- then they could have Gilmore follow Allen. Though Allen is one of the best and craftiest receivers in football when healthy, Gilmore has consistently proven to be up to the task against some of the best in the league.
CHARGERS RUNNING BACKS vs. PATRIOTS LINEBACKERS
You thought the Patriots liked going to their backs in the passing game? The Chargers are just about right there with them. According to Sharp Football Stats, 28 percent of their targets this season have gone to backs, which is the third-highest percentage in football. (Patriots are at 31 percent.) And they're not all last-ditch check-downs for a handful of yards. Chargers passes to backs have a 51 percent success rate, according to Sharp, which is seventh-best in the league and one spot ahead of the Patriots. Anthony Lynn's team is third in football when it comes to yards per attempt on passes to backs (7.4). What's interesting to see is when the Chargers go to their backs. In the red zone? Yep. Twenty-eight percent of the time (seventh in football). On third down? Somewhat. Nineteen percent of the time (12th in football). Middle of the field? Oh yeah. No team sends a higher percentage of their throws between the 40s to running backs than the Chargers (34 percent). The Patriots will have to keep a close eye on Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler at all levels and tackle when they're close. Both Gordon and Ekeler rank in the top-10 among backs when it comes to average yards gained after first contact.
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