Tom E. Curran's Hard Truths Patriots-Chargers Preview
FOXBORO - The Chargers have had a better season than the Patriots. They're 13-4, 8-1 on the road. Their only road loss actually came in Los Angeles against the Rams at the Coliseum. They won at Baltimore, at Seattle, at Pittsburgh and at Kansas City. Their only two losses since September were a one-point home loss to the Broncos and a 12-point loss - now avenged - to the Ravens. They were never non-competitive and what they are is what they've been all year. The Patriots, by contrast, went 11-5, 3-5 on the road, lost twice in December, got blown out three times. They aren't a particularly "tough" or physical defense. Offensively, they are all motions, formations and trickery complemented by an often-effective running game, triggered by a Hall of Fame quarterback in the midst of a frustrating year. So why will the Patriots win? Because, in the playoffs, that's what they do.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
The Chargers play great third-down defense. Since the start of November they’ve played 10 games and opposing offenses are 43-for-128 on third down (33.5% success rate). To get to that level of success – and to face that many third downs – that means you are stopping offenses on first and second down and getting them into third down frequently and stopping them when they get there. For the Patriots to get to third and favorable, they have to run it effectively. That’s their path to postseason success. And it’s their best chance against the Chargers. The Chargers saw the fifth-most runs up the middle this season (147). The average gain was 4.27 yards. A steady diet of Sony Michel and James Develin up the middle at nose tackle Brandon Mebane and the Chargers' multiple defensive back defense, plenty of jet-motion from Cordarrelle Patterson to get the Chargers taking false lateral steps or at least hesitate and the wariness of play-action with Tom Brady. This is where damage can be done.
WHEN THE CHARGERS RUN
Last week, the Chargers were 6-for-17 on third down and ran for 89 yards on 33 carries against the Ravens. Not great numbers. They’ve only had two games in their past seven where they gained more than 3.9 yards per carry. And their lead back, Melvin Gordon, is dinged up. Regardless, the Patriots run defense in 2018 was just horrific. Even when they finally put Danny Shelton on the field for the final two games to slow the flow of running backs walking through them, it just boosted them from awful to not good. With better receiving threats on the field than the team has seen since the Steelers game, the Patriots can’t load the box and give aid to the front-seven. And the front-seven hasn’t shown it can routinely slow anyone down.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
The Chargers have a very good secondary and a very good pass rush. They run the Cover-3 scheme under defensive coordinator Gus Bradley that the Seahawks, Falcons and Jaguars run. The middle and linebacker level is where the soft spot is. Desmond King was All-Pro as a slot corner, so that’s a tough matchup for Julian Edelman. Safety Derwin James was another All-Pro and the Chargers might be wise to sic him on Gronk. The Chargers will easily match up with Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan. That leaves screens and check downs to James White and Rex Burkhead. Tough way to make a living.
WHEN THE CHARGERS PASS
The Chargers have outstanding outside talent in the passing game and it starts with Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen. Allen is one of the best route-runners in the league, has amazing body control and bear-trap hands. He caught 97 balls for 1,196 yards and six touchdowns. He’s complemented by Mike Williams, who caught 43 for 664 and 10 TDs, and Tyrell Williams who caught 41 for 653. Rivers will also drop it down to Gordon and Austin Ekeler out of the backfield (89 combined catches). He’ll use the tight ends too (Antonio Gates and Virgil Green combined for 47 catches). The Patriots secondary dealt with some really good duos this year – Diggs and Thielen, Brown and Smith-Schuster – and handled them. The elements are going to affect Rivers. who threw six picks in L.A.’s final three regular season games and threw some balloons last week against the Ravens and got away with them.
This is a hard category to give the edge in. Chargers kicker Michael Badgley missed just one field goal in the regular season and hit six last week. But he’s a rookie and this is the playoffs. The Chargers had the best kick coverage player in the league, Adrian Phillips. Desmond King was the All-Pro punt returner. But two Chargers kicks got blocked last week. Meanwhile, the Patriots blocked four kicks this year but had a down year in coverage and punt returns.
Questionable: DT Deatrich Wise (ankle)
Questionable: CB Brandon Facyson (concussion), TE Hunter Henry (knee) FB Derek Watt (shoulder), LB Kyle Wilson (concussion)
Ron Torbert is the head referee. This is an “All-Star” crew so we can’t go back and conclude anything based on his record. There will be some history made by the refs, though, as down judge Sarah Thomas will be the first female official to ref an NFL playoff game.
The Patriots are favored by four points and the total is 48. The Chargers have covered 10 of their 17 games, The Patriots covered in nine of 16.
It won’t be the mess it could have been. Still, sunny and 30 with light wind is not surfing weather.
Patriots 20, Chargers 17