COSTA MESA, Calif. — As Patriots coach Bill Belichick let the praise for the Los Angeles Chargers fly, Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn approached it with a healthy dose of polite skepticism.
Lynn didn’t overthink whether Belichick was playing games.
He just shrugged, grinned, and said, “Who knows.”
But Lynn’s respect for Belichick and the Patriots’ reign over the years is genuine — from the vantage point of a second-year head coach tasked with scheming against Belichick as well as a former rival who had to game plan for the Patriots regularly during his coaching stints with the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills.
“I do think he’s considered the best,” Lynn said. “He’s definitely one of the best. But I don’t prepare any differently. I give all the head coaches the same respect. I look at their team, evaluate it, and try to figure out a way to win.”
Even with the season-long talk about the Patriots’ struggles, Lynn said he sees the same dangerous team that has twisted the Rubik’s Cube relentlessly to reach the Super Bowl three of the past four years.
“I see a team winning and figuring out ways to win,” Lynn said. “They’ll go through the running backs, they’ll go through the tight ends, the receivers. The defense steps up when they have to step up and make stops. They’re challenging, they play a lot of manned coverage, and they’re going to make it really challenging for us.
“And special teams are very solid. So I don’t see their demise at all. I see a good football team, and it’s playoff time. This team has been there so many times, they know how to win this time of the year. We’ve got to go in and play Chargers ball.”
But if the Patriots are a model of industrial consistency made in Belichick’s image, the Chargers are an example of rapid change and successful rebranding under the leadership of a coach who knew it would be possible when he signed on.
In just two years, Lynn has helped transform a Chargers team that was in the midst of a big transition.
The most immediate challenge in front of Lynn when the Chargers hired him in January 2017 — the same day they announced their move from San Diego — was finding a level-headed way to lead an organization through a whirlwind of change.
The Chargers’ upheaval to Los Angeles was so fresh at the time of Lynn’s hiring that even Lynn slipped up at his introductory news conference, calling his team the San Diego Chargers.
But his passion was impossible to ignore as his credentials. He developed a deft understanding of the running game from his time in Denver, Jacksonville, Dallas, and Cleveland, then found himself under the wing of Rex Ryan with the Jets and Bills.
He didn’t see the franchise’s transition as an obstacle but an opportunity. In Lynn’s first season, the Chargers went 9-7, their first winning record since 2014.
Coming into this season, Lynn knew his team could make another leap. But the tipping point was a two-week stretch midway through the season when the Chargers went on the road and blew out the Cleveland Browns, then went across the Atlantic and outlasted the Tennessee Titans in London.
It was the kind of stretch that either pulls a team apart or glues it together. The Chargers came out better for it.
“We were together for two weeks every day,” Lynn said. “So it was neat watching them from afar because you could see them going to dinner together, hanging out together. They definitely got to know each other a little bit better. When you can do that, I just think it builds that level of commitment and trust in our football team, and I see it in the players.”
It was a pivotal point for a Chargers team that built its identity on an ability to win on the road. After winning eight road games during the regular season, the Chargers went into Baltimore last weekend and bounced the Ravens in the wild-card round.
Doing it at Gillette Stadium is a different challenge. The Patriots haven’t lost a playoff game in Foxborough since dropping a 28-13 decision to the Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship game. Before that, the last team to walk out of Gillette with a playoff win was the Jets in 2010, when Lynn was New York’s running backs coach.
He leaves memories of that rivalry in 2010.
“That’s all in the past,” he said. “Those old rivalries, they’re old.”
But there’s still a takeaway.
“We definitely can’t make mistakes,” he said. “That team cannot beat themselves. And I respect that about their organization. That’s a skill. An advantage they’ve had for a long time. So we focus on ourselves.”
The Patriots may be the constant, but Lynn’s goal since he arrived in Los Angeles was to cultivate a culture that embraced change.
“We don’t have to overcome the mystique,” he said. “The mystique is not going to win on Sunday. We have to look at what we still have on tape and evaluate that and figure out one-on-ones and go out and execute.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.