When the Chargers have the ball: Since beating the Steelers in Week 12, the Chargers’ passing game has been neutralized a bit. Philip Rivers has more interceptions (six) than touchdown passes (four) and is averaging fewer than 7 yards per completion over those five games. The Chargers haven’t surpassed 200 yards passing or 300 yards total offense in the past three games.
But the Chargers’ pass protection has been good the past two games against the Broncos in Week 17 and last week’s wild-card game against the Ravens, two teams that can rush the passer effectively. How will that hold up against the Patriots’ pressure packages? They’re not a huge sack team, but New England has ramped up their third-down blitzing and built in a lot of game-specific pressure looks in the second half of the season. Rivers is effective at finding checkdowns, but that keeps everything short and quick.
The Patriots have talented DBs to match up with WRs Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, but they also must tackle on the edge vs. fast RBs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler and mind them as receiving options, too. If they’re matched with linebackers, it could be a tough assignment.
Sunday also marks the potential return and season debut of TE Hunter Henry, who has been out since spring with a torn ACL yet could be a difference maker if healthy.
When the Patriots have the ball: Tom Brady, like Rivers, didn’t look like himself down the stretch. But Brady has had time to rest over the bye and is familiar with the Chargers’ defensive scheme. They are primarily a single-high safety team (cover-1 and cover-3 predominantly) that doesn’t blitz heavily, and Brady has had success against those looks in the past.
But can the Patriots handle the rush of the Chargers? Joey Bosa finished the season strong, and Melvin Ingram was the best defender on the field last week in the win at Baltimore. OTs Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon have been up and down against good speed rushers this season, and the Chargers’ underrated interior rushers can’t be ignored.
This might not be a big Rob Gronkowski game (again) if he’s matched with Chargers rookie safety Derwin James, who has been outstanding. Look instead for RB James White to be active as a receiver and for the Patriots to use Sony Michel more as a runner. Can the Patriots’ wide receivers step up? Julian Edelman has not been himself, and Cordarrelle Patterson is coming back from injury.
The field conditions — there’s snow in the forecast — could change things, however, if footing is less than ideal.
Special teams: Expect the Patriots to put a big focus on hemming in Chargers returner Desmond King, who is a game changer. The Patriots’ special teams are solid, although not as strong as you’d expect from a Bill Belichick-coached team. The Chargers, however, aren’t consistent in this area either, even with King’s return ability and the massive improvement with kicker Michael Badgley, who hit 5-of-6 FG tries last week in a clutch performance.
Coaching: It’s a fun battle, with Belichick and Anthony Lynn — a strong Coach of the Year candidate — going head to head. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley also are battle-tested play callers whose matchup should be a good one. The Chargers had a chance to take this team to overtime in this stadium around midseason a year ago but seemed to flub their execution at the ends of both halves.
Prediction: It should not be shocking to see the Chargers come into this game with a lot of confidence, having won all nine games they’ve played this season when boarding a flight. The Patriots’ rest should help them, but this doesn’t appear to be a vintage Patriots outfit right now until proven otherwise. The lack of explosiveness on offense will hurt against the Chargers’ defensive speed, and Rivers will make just enough big plays to pull off one of the bigger postseason victories of his career.
Chargers 27, Patriots 24