The rest of the NFL wants to know if the Patriots can summon the dark magic one more time to make it to their ninth Super Bowl in 18 seasons. This isn’t the most imposing of Patriots teams. It possesses less margin for error and more vulnerability than recent editions. That’s problematic when you consider they drew the most formidable of possible opponents for their divisional playoff game in Foxborough Sunday: the Los Angeles Chargers.
Top to bottom, the Chargers are the most talented team in the field of AFC hopefuls. But they’re still irrevocably the Chargers, no matter which SoCal city they claim. The Bolts have a reputation for being self-defeating dolts. In high school yearbook terms, they’re the team most likely to play right into the Patriots’ hands with self-inflicted wounds and situational football meltdowns.
The Patriots have patented beating teams with more raw talent and less common sense than they have over the last 18 years. The dawn of their dynastic success was taking down the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, turning the Rams’ talent and hubris against them. Toppling more talented opponents is one of the hallmarks of the Patriots’ remarkable run of success; just ask the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Patriots’ advantages against LA are coach, quarterback, and mistake-inviting mystique.
This time of year in the NFL, games are lost more than they are won. To win this one, the Patriots have to let Philip Rivers and the Chargers lose it.
The Patriots’ best chance is applying pressure for 60 minutes and letting the Chargers live up to their reputation for squandering talent and games with miscues and game-management malpractice. Something has to give Sunday. The Patriots have been invincible at home this season (8-0). The Chargers haven’t lost a game played outside of Southern California. They suffered their only road loss to the fellow football inhabitants of Los Angeles, the Rams. The Patriots have to hope that what doesn’t give out is the Chargers’ penchant for self-harm and self-destruction.
The Chargers still have the Schottenheimer genes as part of their organizational DNA. The Patriots witnessed that last year in Foxborough. The Chargers were complicit in their own demise, running into their own end zone for a safety and running out of bounds untouched to negate a touchdown, among other face-palming football transgressions.
For all the cultural and coaching changes Chargers coach Anthony Lynn has implemented, it’s still unclear whether he has changed the franchise’s fundamental nature.
That was on display in the Chargers’ 23-17 wild-card victory over the Baltimore Ravens. They were cruising to an impressive victory, up, 23-3, with nine minutes to go, before they summoned their inner San Diego and had to hold on for dear life.
The letdown was classic Chargers. Their best cornerback, Casey Hayward, lost focus and Michael Crabtree for a pair of touchdowns. But it was a Schottenheimer-esque clock-management mistake that was most egregious.
Holding a 13-point lead, Chargers running back Aaron Ekeler looked to have a first down near the sideline with 6 minutes and 29 seconds to play. But he inexplicably slid down to keep the clock running, gaining only 6 yards. Ekeler forgot that the clock doesn’t freeze for the next snap when a player goes out of bounds until it’s inside the final five minutes of the second half. If he had kept running, the clock would have as well.
The Chargers ended up with a three-and-out, and the Ravens got the ball back with 4:47 to play, turning it into a nail-biter. It was the type of stupidly unaware situational play the Chargers are famous for, and they won’t survive it against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick at Gillette Stadium.
The Chargers display worse mastery of clock management than Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy and yours truly, combined.
It cost LA the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Bolts lost a game this season against the Denver Broncos at home when they bungled Situational Football 101 in unfathomable fashion. Leading, 22-20, with 2:39 to play and Denver out of timeouts, running back Melvin Gordon went the wrong way on a second-and-3 handoff. On the following play, Rivers could have taken a sack and let the clock run down after Von Miller sniffed out a screen pass.
Nope. Rivers drilled the ball into the ground, stopping the clock with 1:58 to play. Genius. The Broncos kicked the game-winning field goal with three seconds left, time the Chargers gifted them.
Like their quarterback, the Chargers always seem to have a conspicuous L to their name.
Teams often take on the characteristics of their quarterbacks. Brady is cool, meticulous, and clutch — as long as he’s not in Miami. Rivers is demonstrative, daring, and occasionally overzealous.
In the terms of the testosterone-theater classic “Top Gun,” Rivers is Maverick and Brady is Iceman. At some point, Rivers will abandon the game plan and his wingman in the bold pursuit of glory. Brady will pilot the Patriots ice cold, waiting for the other guys to make a mistake and then moving in for the kill.
You can bet that Rivers will be eager to prove he can slay Brady after losing the previous seven matchups between the two.
In a lot of ways, this latest duel echoes their first-ever meeting, the 2006 season AFC divisional playoffs. The Chargers entered that game with the more talented team and a pair of menacing pass rushers (Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips). The Patriots entered with questions about the viability of their passing attack and Brady’s options at wide receiver.
To this day, that Chargers team is one of the most physically impressive I’ve ever witnessed live. The Patriots had no business beating them, but they did.
That was the Marlon McCree Game.
With the Chargers leading, 21-13, McCree intercepted a Brady fourth-down pass at the Chargers’ 31 with 6:20 remaining. Instead of taking a knee, he tried to return the interception and was famously stripped by Patriots wide receiver and patron saint Troy Brown.
Brady hit a (eyes) wide-open Reche Caldwell with a TD pass, and the patented running back direct snap netted the game-tying 2-point conversion. Rookie Stephen Gostkowski drilled the game-winner from 31 yards out with 70 seconds remaining, as the Patriots pulled off one of the most improbable victories of the Belichick era.
The talent gap isn’t as wide as it was in 2006. But the Patriots won’t mind if history repeats itself and the more talented team loses again. They’re banking on it.