The Patriots may have had an extra week to scope out the Los Angeles Chargers before their playoff matchup, but the team they’ll see Sunday will be very different from the last time they got a firsthand look.
A year ago, the Patriots handed the Chargers a 21-13 loss at Gillette Stadium in a battle that took four field goals from Stephen Gostkowski to win. Melvin Gordon rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown, but Philip Rivers managed just 212 passing yards. Meanwhile, Tom Brady churned out a machine-like 333 yards on 32-of-47 passing with one touchdown to fuel the win.
The Patriots will have to stop a Chargers team that closed the regular season by winning five of their last six games, then stuffing the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round.
“It’s not the same team that we saw,” Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “There are a number of differences. I think personnel-wise, there’s some differences. The guys that they did have there are playing at a much higher level, I’d say. They’re playing with a lot of confidence. They’re playing very aggressive. So I think this is a totally different group.
“I don’t think last year’s game or what happened and how that game unfolded will obviously have any bearing on what happens this Sunday, but this is much better group that we’ll see this weekend.
The most dramatic difference is a Chargers defense that vaulted from 15th in the league in total yards allowed last season to ninth this year. They left Baltimore’s blossoming rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson baffled on Sunday, picking him off once and forcing three fumbles.
But bottling up a rookie and stopping a playoff staple like Brady are completely different.
“I’m sure they’ll play Tom Brady differently than they played Lamar Jackson, like anybody would,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “But their scheme is still pretty fundamentally their scheme, and they’ve had so much success with it. They’ve been one of the top defensive teams for the last couple years. I can’t imagine them straying too far from the principles of what’s made them so successful.
“Whatever we get, we get, and it’ll come down to good execution. I don’t think at this point in the season you’re going to reinvent the game of football after . . . again, they’ve had a great 13-4 season. They’ve won so many games against good teams that I can’t imagine that they’d do things too much differently from what’s given them so much success to get to this point, but we’ll see.”
The Chargers haven’t been to the playoffs since 2013, when they lost in the second round to the Denver Broncos. Slater, a Los Angeles native, already had five playoff trips and two Pro Bowl nods under his belt by then, but he’s kept an eye on the Chargers from afar and has an appreciation for Rivers as the face of the franchise.
“I was a Southern California kid . . . once the Rams left when I was a kid, the only other team in Southern California were the Chargers, so I watched a lot of his football, and he’s given a lot of great moments to their fan base,” Slater said of the Chargers’ quarterback. “He’s given a lot of great moments to this league. I think he conducts himself and carries himself in a way that’s really first-class all the way. He represents his organization, his family, and this game about as well as anyone we have, and he’s played at a high level for a long time. So, it’s really an exciting time to have two great players, two of the best players of their era, be able to square off in a game like this. So, it should be fun for football fans.”
The Patriots haven’t lost a playoff game at Gillette since the 2012 AFC championship game, but there’s an obvious threat in a Chargers team that got eight of its 12 regular-season wins on the road.
“I think mental toughness is a big part of that,” Slater said. “I think having great leadership within your organization is going to be a big part of that, and then, you know, just coming together as brothers. I think that they feel something special, and they do. The belief that you have to have in one another to go on the road and win is really necessary.
“I think they have that belief. They’ve proved it week-in and week-out. No matter the situation, no matter the game, circumstances, they’ve won those games, so it says a lot about who they are.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.