Tom E. Curran's review of Patriots-vs.-Chargers playoff game
FOXBORO -- Taking stock of this game, the only way it can be realistically appraised is by looking at the first 30 minutes. That’s when it was still mostly a game. And that it took just 30 minutes for the Patriots to completely subdue a team that had lost just one “road” game all season, that hadn’t been blown out, that seemed at the height of its powers is outrageous in itself. The Chargers were 13-4 and – even though the Patriots had that extra week of prep and the Chargers had a whole mess of travel – that doesn’t explain away what happened. The Patriots – healthy, rested and better prepared by several miles – played their best game since their 2016 demolition of the Steelers in the AFC Championship. That this game came when plenty of people – me included – wondered if they still had this level of dominance left in them made it that much more impressive.
When the Patriots Ran
Sony Michel ran for 105 yards in the first half, averaging 6 yards per carry and scoring three touchdowns. Rex Burkhead had the other one on the ground and the Patriots moved the chains 15 times with runs in the first half alone. How did that happen? It wasn’t just the dominance against the Chargers multi-DB defense, it was up front where the Patriots manhandled L.A. as well. Fullback James Develin and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen were big contributors in plowing open holes in a Chargers defense that wasn’t able to withstand the push up front. New England finished with 155 yards on the ground. The effectiveness of the running game (and the short passing game) meant the Patriots were rarely “behind the sticks.” They only faced four occasions in the first half when they were in third-and-6 or worse. Only once did they fail to convert those.
When the Chargers ran
The Patriots played more soundly in the running game than they had all season. It was clear the Chargers felt they could make gains on the ground but the Patriots linebackers – Kyle Van Noy, Donta Hightower and Elandon Roberts – did a terrific job sniffing out and filling gaps against Melvin Gordon who ended up with 15 yards on nine carries. The Chargers gained just 19 yards on the ground all game and that’s because of the complementary football Bill Belichick so often talks about. Cashing in with touchdowns after Chargers punts time and again put L.A. in a position where it had to totally abandon its rushing attack.
When the Patriots passed
When Tom Brady went 16 for 22 for 165 yards and threw three touchdown passes in the first half against the Jets, it was the Jets in Week 17. What did one expect? Not that Brady would go 23 for 29 for 233 yards and another TD in the first half of the AFC Divisional Playoffs against the Chargers, dats fo sho. We all knew coming in that going against a Cover-3 scheme, the Patriots were apt to throw to Julian Edelman out of the slot and James White out of the backfield. That’s precisely what they did as James White caught 10 for 71 in the first half and Edelman caught seven for 107. They finished with 24 catches (30 targets) for 248 yards. Perhaps the best aspect of the Patriots passing game was the protection. Brady wasn’t sacked. He was barely pressured. He hardly had to move.
When the Chargers passed
The pressure on Philip Rivers was, as Bill Belichick described it, “constant.” Rivers was only sacked twice but he was hit seven times and pressured more than that. Patriots defenders broke up eight of his passes. His protection was horrible and he let it get to him with constant grousing at teammates, officials and the Patriots. He went 7 for 16 in the first half for 121 yards. His one positive play in the passing game came when Stephon Gilmore inexplicably bit hard on a little shoulder shimmy from Keenan Allen, turning Allen loose for a 43-yard touchdown. Gilmore spent much of the day on Allen while J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty covered Mike Williams. Rivers rolled up more than 200 yards passing late in the game after the matter was decided.
The Chargers special teams were responsible for the play that ultimately did them in. After finally forcing a Patriots punt with 3:32 remaining in the half, Desmond King muffed it, Albert McClellan recovered it and the Patriots turned that muff into a touchdown five plays later. That made it 35-7 going into halftime and probably made for an even more miserable halftime locker room for the Chargers. Julian Edelman returned five punts without event. Ryan Allen dropped two of his four punts inside the 20 (one at the Chargers 1) and Stephen Gostkowski converted his one field goal attempt.