The second of two AFC divisional round games feels a lot different than the first. While Patrick Mahomes and Andrew Luck could square off several more times in future playoff games, there exists the real possibility that Sunday’s Tom Brady vs. Philip Rivers showdown could be the very last time they meet on the field — not just in the postseason, but ever.
Brady is the best to ever do it and Rivers is the best of his era to never win the biggest game of them all, and it seems fitting that Brady’s team is standing in Rivers’ way as he attempts to get there in what might be the best season of his underrated career. The Chargers have seen the Patriots in the playoffs twice before, but they’ve come up short both times. Those were different Chargers teams, though, and different Patriots teams as well. It’s now been 11 years since these two teams met in the postseason, which they did in each of Rivers’ first two playoff runs.
The Pats have done a whole lot of winning since then and the Chargers not quite as much, but none of that really matters when the 2018 versions of these squads take the field for the right to advance to the AFC title game. Fittingly, however, which of them advances will likely come down to the play of the two quarterbacks, which makes this game seem not so different after all.
Here’s what you should be watching out for on Sunday afternoon (1 p.m. ET, CBS, stream on CBS All Access).
Chargers pass defense vs. Tom Brady’s equal-opportunity offense
There are few defenses in the NFL that can reach the heights of the Chargers when they’re fully healthy and really on their game. We saw exactly what that looked like last week against the Baltimore Ravens, when Melvin Ingram completely dominated the game from the first snap while the rest of the defense fell in line behind him.
The Chargers completely shut down the Baltimore run game despite playing almost the entire game with seven defensive backs on the field. They had seven DBs out there for 58 snaps, blasting the previous single-game high for any team in any game this season (18), and exceeding the total number of snaps (50) on which they themselves had used the formation during the regular season. We could see the Chargers break out the look again against the Patriots on Sunday, but even if they don’t, they have the personnel to match up with the New England offense.
The Patriots may look to establish their run game against the Chargers, but given the inconsistency of Sony Michel since his return from injury back in Week 10, it seems more likely that they’ll once again be counting on Tom Brady to do the heavy lifting. Brady was one of the few NFL quarterbacks who did not get lifted to new heights amid this season’s offensive explosion. His completion percentage, yards per attempt average, touchdown rate, interception rate, passer rating, and QBR all took slight dips this season and the Pats had more struggle-filled games than at any time in recent memory. None of which is to say that Brady was bad, or even average. He was largely excellent. Just not quite as excellent as the best quarterbacks in the league, for the first time in a while.
It will be fascinating to see how Brady navigates a Chargers pass defense whose strengths aligned well with Brady’s own. Los Angeles finished the season ranked 10th in pass defense DVOA, a strong showing that nonetheless belies their true strength, as they played much of the season without Joey Bosa, who himself is capable of wrecking an opponent’s passing game in the fashion Ingram did against the Ravens last week. The Chargers’ greatest strengths through the air were against tight ends (Rob Gronkowski), where they ranked first in DVOA, and short passes (Julian Edelman, James White), where they ranked third. They were less strong against No. 1 receivers (the Patriots will miss Josh Gordon here), ranking 23rd, and against deep passes, where they ranked 31st.
Brady was hit or miss on his deep throws this season. He completed 23 of 65 passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, per Pro Football Focus, with an accuracy rate on deep throws that was slightly below average. When he was on target with the deep ball, however, good things tended to happen. Brady finished with 714 passing yards on those 23 deep completions, as well as eight touchdowns and just two interceptions. His 35 percent touchdown rate on deep completions ranked eighth among the 24 passers who threw at least 45 deep passes this season. Gordon was Brady’s most heavily-targeted deep receiver, though, and after the mercurial wideout left the team only six of pass attempts traveled 20 yards or more in the air.
Instead, he’s likely to lean on his usual short, timing-based passes to matriculate the Patriots offense down the field, and that’s where the chess match with the LA defense gets really interesting.
The Chargers’ group of corners and safeties is one of the deepest and most versatile in the league. The best thing about Casey Hayward, Michael Davis, Desmond King, Adrian Phillips, Jahleel Addae, and rookie sensation Derwin James is the number of different ways defensive coordinator Gus Bradley can deploy them all, as they each possess a variety of skills that lets him mix and match coverages in a way that confuses opposing offenses. He’ll employ all six of those players at different times, and last week he mixed in Rayshawn Jenkins on a near every-snap basis as well, after Jenkins played only 93 defensive snaps during the regular season.
Most often, the Chargers will use Hayward and Davis on the outside, King in the slot, and two or three of the safeties over the top, in the box, or as a kind of hybrid linebacker. Such a configuration will see Hayward and Davis matched up against Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, and Cordarrelle Patterson on the outside, King against Julian Edelman inside, and the safeties helping out on Edelman, tight end Rob Gronkowski, and James White or Rex Burkhead out of the backfield.
Brady loves to hit Edelman and White on quick-breaking option routes before the defense can react and get to the football, but the Chargers excel against those kind of plays. King was one of the best slot corners in the league this season, allowing a 79.8 passer rating when lined up inside, per PFF, which ranked 10th among 51 corners who played at least 125 snaps in the slot. If he can manage to handle Edelman one-on-one, that would free up the safeties to concentrate on Gronk and White or Burkhead, which could really throw a wrench into the Patriots’ plans and force them to target Hayward and Davis on the outside with the weakest sect of their receiving corps.
The Chargers completely shut down tight ends throughout the regular season, but Gronk is no typical tight end — when he’s fully healthy at least. We don’t really know which version of Gronk we will get on Sunday, but it’s safe to say that the guy we saw for most of this season is not the one we got used to over the years. Despite playing 13 games, Gronkowski finished the year with only 47 catches for 682 yards and three scores, and really only had two games where he looked like the Gronk of old. And even in those games, he only looked like that Gronk in the box score, not on the field. He was lumbering all over the place for most of the year.
LA also excelled against shutting down the kind of short passes on which Brady typically targets White, with their safeties and linebackers rallying to the ball on swing routes, options, and check-downs in order to prevent long gains. If they can do the same on Sunday, it’ll force Brady to heavily target receivers with whom he is less comfortable, and that could mean a long day for New England’s offense.
Bill Belichick and Brian Flores vs. Philip Rivers
Given the possibility that the New England offense struggles against a strong Chargers defense that matches up well with the Patriots’ own strengths, it seems likely that if the Pats are to stave off the upset, their own defense will have to step up. The Patriots were slightly better against the pass (14th in DVOA) than the run (19th) this season, but Melvin Gordon has simply not looked the same since his return from a knee injury and seems incredibly unlikely to take over the game against the Patriots this weekend. Instead, as it often does, the game will ride on the right shoulder of Philip Rivers. And it’s there that the Chargers could be in a spate of trouble.
Rivers was having what was likely the best regular season of his career until about six weeks ago. Through the Chargers’ first 12 games, Rivers completed 69.7 percent of his passes, averaged 9.0 yards per attempt, and threw 28 touchdowns against only six interceptions. That worked out to a sparkling 115.7 passer rating, which would have been easily the best mark of Rivers’ career. Then he had a relatively muted performance against a blah Bengals defense and hasn’t really looked the same ever since. Including last week against the Ravens, Rivers has completed 104 of 160 passes for 1,050 yards, four touchdowns, six picks, and a 76.3 passer rating over his last five games. That’s … not great.
And the last thing you want when you are a quarterback in the midst of a Not Great spell is to go up against a coach whose defenses have had your number throughout your NFL career. Unfortunately for the Chargers, that is the case for Rivers against Bill Belichick, against whom he has struggled more than almost any other coach in the league — especially during the teams’ two playoff matchups.
Rivers is unfortunately catching this particular version of New England defense at a time when it is playing really well, too. With the exception of a truly strange loss to the Dolphins in Miami in Week 14, the Patriots’ defense looked fantastic down the stretch, holding each of its five other post-bye opponents to 17 points or fewer, and an average of just 11 apiece. The pass defense came on strong over the final month or so of the season with a sorting out of roles in the secondary that saw Jason McCourty take over in the slot while undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson stepped into the outside corner spot opposite shutdown star Stephon Gilmore. Along with Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon on the back end, the Pats now have players at every secondary position playing extremely well.
Against teams like the Chargers that have one wide receiver who is so far and away better and more heavily-targeted than the others, Belichick often likes to have his No. 1 corner shadow the No. 2 receiver and then bracket the top option with his No. 2 corner and a safety over the top. That’s more difficult with the Chargers, though, because Keenan Allen plays the majority of his snaps inside. (Allen is obviously Rivers’ No. 1 target, and was the intended receiver on 26.8 percent of Rivers’ throws this year. Allen’s 136 targets were more than the next two closest players on the team combined: Gordon and Mike Williams, who had 66 apiece).
Allen primarily lines up in the slot these days, aligning there on 55 percent of his routes, per Pro Football Focus. (He had a 47-528-2 line when in the slot.) And that means it will largely be up to McCourty to wrangle with him, though he could get some bracket help from one or more of New England’s linebackers or safeties and the Pats could elect to have Gilmore shadow him if and when he lines up outside.
Under the Chargers’ normal alignment however, Gilmore and Jackson will be tasked with shutting down Mike Williams, Tyrell Williams, and occasionally, Travis Benjamin. Mike Williams saw his star rise over the second half of the season, and it would not be surprising at all if Belichick elected to shadow him with Gilmore in order to take him out of the game. Gilmore allowed just 42 catches on 90 throws in his direction this season, per PFF, and his 71.8 passer rating against ranked ninth out of 113 corners who were on the field for at least 200 passing down snaps.
Jackson, though, has been good enough during his time in the lineup (22 catches on 42 targets, 42.0 passer rating against) that Belichick could easily play sides with his corners, or bracket Mike Williams with Jackson and Harmon and let Gilmore remove Tyrell Williams from the equation. We just don’t know how he’ll approach things. All we know is it’ll be difficult for Rivers, who turns to the Williamses when he wants to throw downfield. He threw 54 passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air this season, per PFF, and 28 of those 54 went to one of the Williamses, as did 13 of his 23 completions and five of his seven touchdowns on those throws.
The return of Hunter Henry provides the Chargers with an element they have lacked in the passing game for most of the season, but it’s difficult to count on him being a game-changing piece in his first game back from such a serious injury. Instead, it feels like this one will be a slog for the Chargers, much like it could be for the Pats.
Prediction: Patriots 20, Chargers 17
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Source: “Los Angeles” – Google News