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Mirror, mirror . . .
On the statistical surface, the divisional playoff game between the Chargers and Patriots looks like a matchup of very similar teams — both of which execute well in every aspect of the game yet neither of which is exceptional in a single area.
Both are balanced, led by veteran quarterbacks who minimize mistakes. Both feature solid running games. Both have defenses that limit points, albeit in slightly different fashion — the Patriots by garnering turnovers, the Chargers by simply limiting yardage.
The net result was two teams who not only featured similar records (12-4 for the Chargers, 11-5 for the Patriots), but who won games in similar fashion, with the Patriots averaging 27.3 points per game while yielding, on average, 20.3 points, and the Chargers putting up 26.8 points per game while permitting 20.6.
Given that, it’s worth asking whether there’s anything in the Chargers’ profile that might separate the two teams.
■ ROAD IS WHERE THE HOME IS?: After going 7-1 on the road in the regular season and beating the Ravens in Baltimore during wild card weekend, the Chargers won’t be intimidated by travel. But how often do elite road teams sustain their performance into the playoffs?
It’s hard to say. It’s unusual for a team that is so dominant on the road to have to play any playoff games away from their home venue, since most teams that win seven or eight road games sail into the playoffs with a bye and often with a No. 1 seed.
A look at data from pro-football-reference.com reveals that since the playoffs became a 12-team tournament in 1990, 34 teams (including this year’s Chargers and Saints) have won at least seven regular-season road games. Of those, just nine teams played even a single road game in the playoffs. Those nine teams feature a combined 7-7 road playoff record, with just one of those eight — the 2007 Giants, who went 3-0 in conference road playoff games before Buster Douglasing the 18-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl — winning more than one road playoff game in a single January. Historically speaking, then, the Chargers already have hit a typical quota for road playoff wins.
Meanwhile, the Patriots are the 44th team to go 8-0 at home since 1990. The prior 43 teams have a combined 35-19 record in home playoff games (.648), with 14 of those previously undefeated home teams (32.6 percent) advancing to the Super Bowl.
|Points per game||27.3 (4)||26.8 (T-6)|
|Yards per play||5.9 (8)||6.3 (3)|
|Passing yards per game||266.1 (8th)||255.6 (10th)|
|Passer rating||97.8 (11th)||104.9 (5th)|
|Rushing yards per game||127.3 (5th)||117.1 (15th)|
|Yards per carry||4.3 (17th)||4.7 (7th)|
|Turnovers||18 (T-23rd)||19 (T-18th)|
|Percent of drives ending in turnover||9.2 (29)||10.0 (24th)|
|Points per game||20.3 (7th)||20.6 (8th)|
|Percent of drives ending in a score||32.6 (4th)||33.7 (10th)|
|Yards per play||5.7 (22nd)||5.4 (10th)|
|Passing yards per game||246.4 (22nd)||227.9 (9th)|
|Passer rating||85.4 (7th)||89.1 (9th)|
|Rushing yards per game||112.7 (11th)||105.8 (7th)|
|Yards per carry||4.9 (30th)||4.3 (15th)|
|Turnovers||28 (T-5th)||20 (T-16th)|
|Percent of drives ending in turnover||15.0 (4th)||11.8 (16th)|
A FRIGID RECEPTION: Since Philip Rivers became the Chargers’ full-time quarterback in 2006, his team has played 19 times with a game-time temperature of 40 degrees or lower. San Diego/Los Angeles owns an 11-8 (.579) record in such games — though that mark drops to 1-4 in games where the temperature at kickoff was below freezing, notable given that the mercury is not expected to rise above the 30-degree mark at Gillette on Sunday. That said, it’s been years since Rivers and the Chargers played in such harsh conditions.
RISE AND SHINE: While teams now work extensively with sports science experts to minimize the impact of travel on circadian rhythms — particularly when traveling from one coast to another — there’s little evidence that the Chargers have lost games while sleepwalking.
During the Rivers era, the Chargers are 25-25 (.500) when traveling and playing in an early (1 p.m. ET) game. When on the road with a late start, they are 30-30 (.500) over the same period.
They went 3-0 in early games this year, beating the Bills, 31-20, in Week 2; crushing the Browns, 38-14, in Week 6; and withstanding the Ravens, 23-17, last week. Last week’s win in Baltimore improved the Rivers-run Chargers to 3-0 in postseason games with a 1 p.m. start.
IN A SHOCKING TURN OF EVENTS, TURNOVERS MATTER: Little matters more to the Patriots than ball security — a value that New England’s coaches surely can emphasize by pointing to this year’s Chargers.
In 2018, Los Angeles was 11-0 when committing one or no turnovers. They were 2-4 when coughing up the ball at least twice. A Patriots team that was elite this year in producing turnovers — with 15.0 percent of all drives punctuated by a fumble or interception, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL — certainly will hope to push the Chargers into multiple turnovers.
The Chargers, meanwhile, were 6-1 when their defense forced opponents into at least two turnovers, compared to a 7-3 mark in games with one or no takeaways. The Patriots made it exceedingly difficult for opponents to pry the football from them down the stretch, turning the ball over in just three of their final nine games.
BOLTS DON’T BLITZ: Though the Chargers’ logo seems ripe for a team that would make liberal use of the blitz (the German word for lightning), Los Angeles has defied the term’s Teutonic roots in 2018. According to Stats Inc., the Chargers blitzed on just 15.7 percent of plays (30th in the NFL), with nearly half of those coming on third down (41 of 92, 45 percent).
Perhaps because of their judicious use of the tactic, however, Los Angeles was enormously effective when sending an extra rusher, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 63.8 passer rating (second lowest against any team’s blitz) while recording sacks on 13.0 percent of blitzes (third highest in the NFL). They also got burned for just two passing touchdowns on blitzes, tied for the third-fewest in the NFL.
The Patriots are more aggressive sending an extra rusher, doing so on 28.0 percent of plays (10th most in the NFL). While the Chargers run both well and often enough to limit the frequency with which teams come at them with an extra pass rusher, Rivers was far less effective when he faced a blitz than when he didn’t. Though sacked on just 5.8 percent of blitzes (sixth lowest in the NFL), Rivers had a somewhat modest 93.3 passer rating against blitzes, compared to a hefty 109.7 mark without the extra rusher.
GROUND CONTROL: Including last week’s playoff game, Los Angeles gave up at least 100 rushing yards nine times this year, going 5-4 in those games. The Chargers were 8-0 when keeping opponents to fewer than 100 yards. They followed a similar line of demarcation when allowing opponents to average 4.0 yards per rush or better — teams that reached and surpassed that mark went 3-5 against the Chargers during the season, those that fell short of it (including the Ravens, who were held to 90 yards and 3.9 yards per carry last week) were 0-8.
That precedent suggests that there’s a very good chance that the game will be dictated by New England’s running game. The Patriots ran for at least 100 yards in nine games this year. They won all of them. There have been Patriots seasons where the performance of the running game has seemed more noise than signal, where rushing yards have been a function of games put well out of hand early rather than design. This is not such a year.
As for the Los Angeles rushing attack, the Chargers’ fortunes did not correlate as consistently with their running game — but it is worth noting that New England’s defense allowed at least 150 yards rushing five times this season and went 1-4 in them.