I am the Tomato Can Whisperer.
I know Tomato Cans. I invented the genre. It’s sort of like creating Facebook or discovering your own solar system.
I identified the fraudulent Texans when they were 11-1 in 2012. I called out the hideousness of the playoff Colts in 2014 and the divisional-round Titans last year. Along with many others, I easily marked the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins of the AFC East (Warhol) Division. Trust me, I know Tomato Cans. I am to Tomato Cans what J. Robert Oppenheimer was to the atomic bomb.
And let me say this to the Los Angeles Chargers: You, sirs, are no Tomato Cans.
In this spirit, I promise not to diminish the magnitude of the Patriots’ achievement if they thrash the Chargers in the divisional round this weekend. I pledge not to conclude once again that the Patriots are good only because everybody else is bad. Au contraire. This is not your typical Patriots playoff layup. This is not a cakewalk through Patriot Place. No bed of roses. No pleasure cruise.
If the Patriots win Sunday, it will be a victory against a legitimate NFL playoff team to advance to the AFC Championship. In recent New England sports history, that’s a rare event. Sort of like Yaz sticking around to watch nine innings after a ceremonial first pitch.
If the Patriots advance, it will be a victory owed to good game-planning and player performance. It will be advancement in the tournament by merit rather than by the forfeiture and failure of the opposition. This year in the divisional round, the Patriots are going to have to win because they are good, not simply because the other guys throw up on their own shoes at kickoff.
Wow. NFL meritocracy. What a concept.
Traditionally, the Patriots advance to the AFC Championship by beating a team that doesn’t belong in the final eight. In the last seven years, the Patriots have won in the divisional round (at home every time, of course) by an average score of 37-20. The only competitive games were in 2015 against the Ravens and in 2016 against the Chiefs. The other five were not contested.
The Patriots are still Fortunate Sons, ever beneficiaries of the AFC East. Thanks to the Warhol, the 11-5 Patriots get to play a playoff game at home against a team with a 13-4 record.
The home cooking benefits are significant. The Chargers are going to have to fly cross country for a third time in eight days before Sunday’s kickoff. And the West Coast fellows are going to have to play in sub-freezing weather. There’s a chance of snow. This makes Patriot Nation feel pretty darned good.
But it is not the traditional slam dunk for your team in the divisional round. The Chargers are an 8-1 road team with wins in Seattle, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Denver, and Baltimore. They have a top 10 offense and a top 10 defense. They have a veteran quarterback who is tough and fearless.
I like to think of Philip Rivers as a more talented Scott Zolak. In many ways, Rivers and Zo are the same guy. Both are 6 feet 5 inches with a playing weight around 230 pounds. Both came to the NFL from the Atlantic Coast Conference. They both look like Glen Campbell and are super-competitive with great edge and cockiness. Both had their dad as their high school coach.
Rivers has enjoyed a far more decorated professional career, but he’s always reminded me of a latter-day Zolak with a better NFL résumé. Teammates want to go to war with guys like Zo and Rivers.
Rivers has not enjoyed success against New England (he is 1-7, and his only win was against the Matt Cassel Patriots of 2008), but there is no questioning his ability or his toughness. This is a man who played an entire AFC Championship game against the Patriots with a torn ACL in January of 2008.
He has thrown for more yards and touchdowns than any other quarterback who never made it to a Super Bowl. He is a gamer, a likely Hall of Famer, and has a lot of football fans rooting for him in these playoffs. He has eight children and wears bolo ties. Hard not to pull for a guy like that.
Rivers has never had the advantage of playing for a Bill Belichick team. Drafted in the same class as Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, he has played his career in relative anonymity, mired in the mediocrity of Marty Schottenheimer and Friends. In 15 NFL seasons, Rivers is 5-5 in the playoffs, including 0-2 against the Patriots.
But he is not afraid. And he is going to be tougher to beat than Deshaun Watson or Lamar Jackson.
Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers are coming to Foxborough.
The Tomato Cans have been put back on the shelf.