The Patriots have a big challenge next Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, both figuratively and literally.
The Chargers earned the right to play the Patriots in the Divisional Round of the playoffs with a 23-17 win over the Ravens on Sunday. And unlike last season, when the Patriots breezed past a mediocre Titans team in the second round, the Chargers are going to give the Patriots all they can handle.
The Chargers, now 13-4 this season, are the most complete team in the AFC, as they proved in throttling the Ravens on the road. They have a tough, veteran quarterback in Philip Rivers, a top-10 scoring offense and defense, and dynamic returners on special teams. The Chargers have their flaws, but less so than any other AFC team.
And the Chargers are road tested — they are 9-1 away from home this year (including a win in London), with wins in some of the toughest venues in the NFL: Seattle, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Denver, and Baltimore.
This also will literally be a big challenge for the Patriots, because the Chargers are noticeably big on both sides of the football.
The Chargers’ offense ranked sixth in points scored (26.8 per game), and physically dominates its opponents. The centerpiece is running back Melvin Gordon, a tough load to handle at 6 feet 1 inch and 215 pounds. Gordon averaged 115 scrimmage yards per game this season and scored 13 touchdowns in 12 games. He appeared limited by a knee injury on Sunday against the Ravens, finishing with 18 touches for 43 yards, but he scored an important touchdown on the goal line.
Paving the way for Gordon are five big offensive linemen that all stand between 6-4 and 6-6 and between 298 and 315 pounds.
The Chargers receivers are all big and physical. Mike Williams (10 touchdown catches) and Tyrell Williams (five TDs) both stand at 6-4, and Keenan Allen (1,196 yards, six TDs) is 6-2. All three tight ends are 6-4 or 6-5. The Patriots have a big countermeasure in Stephon Gilmore, but J.C. Jackson, Jason McCourty, and Patrick Chung will be at significant size disadvantages in their matchups.
And then there is Rivers, the big, tough, classic drop-back quarterback. He’s one of the few quarterbacks the Patriots will face this year that is not a scrambling threat, but at 6-5 and 228 pounds, Rivers is savvy in the pocket, avoids sacks (32 this season), and will deliver the ball despite taking a big shot.
The Chargers aren’t the fastest team on offense, but they make a lot of big plays. Rivers, despite his funky throwing motion and less-than-average arm strength, was fourth in the NFL in completions of 20-plus yards (60).
Rivers has never defeated Tom Brady in his career as a starter. Rivers is 1-7 all time against the Patriots, with his one win coming against Matt Cassel in 2008. The last matchup in the series was a 21-13 Patriots win last season at Gillette Stadium. Rivers is 0-2 against the Patriots in the playoffs, with the last encounter coming in the 2008 AFC Championship game.
But history will mean nothing on Sunday, and Rivers, 37, is playing like someone who is finally due for a Super Bowl run. Rivers finished with 4,308 yards, 32 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions this year, and completed 68.3 percent of his passes. His passer rating (105.5) was fifth best in the NFL, and his yards per attempt were third best (8.48).
Rivers didn’t produce eye-popping stats on Sunday, completing 22 of 32 passes for 160 yards against the Ravens. But he didn’t throw an interception, held the ball for 33:40, and built a healthy lead, on the road, against a stingy Ravens unit.
“I’m not playing Tom by any means,” Rivers said Sunday after the Chargers’ win. “But is it special to just go to New England against a Hall of Fame coach and arguably the best quarterback ever to play and get another shot at them? Heck yeah. Heck yeah it is. It is special.”
“I’m not playing those guys, but I have a great deal of respect, fan of those guys. So to get an opportunity to go against them 11 years after we had that opportunity in that 2007 season, yeah, it’s awesome. I’m looking forward to it.”
The Chargers have size on defense, too, most notably at cornerback (three of their five are 6-2). Their defensive coordinator is Gus Bradley, and he still runs the same Seattle Cover 3 scheme that relies on physical, press cornerbacks and a four-man pass rush that can get on top of the quarterback in a hurry. Rookie safety Derwin James is a big, physical presence in the secondary at 6-2 and 215 pounds. He and safety Desmond King were named first-team All-Pro this season.
Julian Edelman has traditionally performed well against this defensive scheme and these types of big, physical cornerbacks, as has James White. But Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, and Rob Gronkowski are going to have a tough time getting open consistently.
And if they can’t get open quickly, Brady could be in trouble. The Chargers’ 38 sacks this season tied for 19th in the NFL, but they dominated Lamar Jackson on Sunday, sacking him seven times and holding the Ravens to 74 total yards through three quarters. Melvin Ingram, Joey Bosa, and teammates can ruin the Patriots’ day if the offensive line doesn’t come to play.
The Patriots also have to be wary of the Chargers’ big-play ability on special teams. King was named second-team All-Pro as a punt returner, and scored on a 73-yarder this season. Sunday against the Ravens, King had a 33-yard punt return and a 72-yard kickoff return.
The Patriots had three potential opponents for next Sunday’s game. It could have been the Texans, who always stub their toes in Foxborough. It could have been the Ravens, who are led by a rookie quarterback who can’t throw the ball.
Instead, it’s the Chargers, a big, veteran, well-rounded team that tied for the best record in the AFC and has won several impressive games on the road this season.
Rivers and the Chargers don’t have a good history in Foxborough. But this is one team that won’t be fazed by the lighthouse and the cold weather and having to stare down Brady and Bill Belichick.
The Patriots will be well-rested and prepared, and the Chargers will have to make their second consecutive long trip to the East Coast. But the Patriots should have their hands full.