With the Patriots and Chargers set to face off in the divisional round Sunday, we gathered our football writers Nora Princiotti, Jim McBride, and Ben Volin around Slack Thursday morning to answer eight questions about the contest:
What was the mood like in the locker room and at practice on Wednesday?
McBride: Pretty lively at practice. Players were on the field for the first time since last Thursday and in full pads — likely for the last time until Sunday. They moved part of their special teams session from the lower fields to the stadium, likely because of the ungodly wind. Locker room was business as usual.
Princiotti: Yep, good, upbeat, pretty typical locker room.
Volin: I wasn’t there for locker room access, but I’m betting it wasn’t much different than any other week. Patriots are always so steady, at least when dealing with the media.
If the Chargers do play seven DBs, as they did against the Ravens, how do you think the Patriots counteract, and will they take some shots down the seam to Rob Gronkowski?
Princiotti: So I think it’s pretty unlikely that they do — that was game-plan-specific having played the Ravens, who present a unique challenge because of Lamar Jackson. But if it does happen . . . I think the Chargers could still find a way to have Derwin James on Gronk in that situation, which doesn’t change much. I think it’ll be more about the running backs.
McBride: I’d be surprised to see much of the seven DB defense — no Lamar Jackson to contain this week. If they do, the Patriots will pound it with James Develin and Sony Michel.
Volin: I doubt they play seven DBs all game, but they will probably play six DBs a lot, just because of their injuries at linebacker. And Derwin James is physical enough to almost be considered a linebacker.
Either way, I think this will be a significant game for Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, Dwayne Allen, and James Develin. I think we’ll see a lot of power football, and a lot of play-action to give Tom Brady some time and help the receivers create separation.
Who presents a bigger challenge for the Patriots: Derwin James or Melvin Ingram?
Volin: Ingram is the bigger challenge in that you have to account for him on every play, and he will line up all across the formation, even across from the guards. But I think the Patriots can neutralize him and Joey Bosa. Last year, the Patriots held Ingram and Bosa to just one sack and six total tackles.
The Patriots don’t have to account for James as much, but he has the ability to take Gronk out of the game, which could have a significant trickle-down effect on the Patriots offense.
McBride: I think it’s a hard question because both are so versatile. James can play in the box or deep. Ingram can rush from everywhere — not unlike Trey Flowers. If I had to choose, I’d say Ingram because of his ability to create pressure.
Princiotti: This is maybe a medium-hot take because we saw how Ingram absolutely wrecked the wild-card round game, but I say Derwin James because I have more faith in the Patriots and their offensive line’s ability to neutralize the pass rush to a certain extent. But to do that, you need the run game and the short passing game to be effective, and that’s where Derwin becomes a problemo, in addition to being able to take Gronk out.
Philip Rivers has spun out of some throws against pressure and thrown a couple interceptions recently because of it. Will the Patriots blitz more in this game? And how big of a factor will Trey Flowers be?
Princiotti: I think they will blitz a lot, I don’t know if it will be more since they’ve been a pretty blitz-heavy team already. But they’ll do something spicy. Maybe they’ll see how Rivers handles the amoeba defense.
Volin: Flowers is a good player, but it’s hard to predict sacks or other stats for him, because he’s not a dominant pass rusher, and most of the Patriots’ quarterback pressure is scheme-based, and not a case of a player winning his one-on-one matchup. I think they will use that amoeba front a decent amount to disguise their rush and coverage. And I could see a lot of zone blitzing to try to confuse the offensive line but still have seven guys back in coverage.
Princiotti: I feel like the amoeba defense needs theme music. Scary, horror movie theme music. Beware . . . The AMoeBaAaaaaaAAA.
McBride: The blitz will also be a heavy part of this defense. Trey Flowers is always a factor when healthy. He will be a big factor because he can overwhelm tackles with his power and dominate interior guys with his quickness.
Princiotti: I’m skirting the Flowers thing because it’s hard to predict what kind of game an individual player will have. Flowers is one of their best players, though, and if he’s on his game, I guarantee you, Rivers has some trouble. The flip side being that when he hasn’t had a dominant performance, the Patriots defense has had some bad days.
What will be Tom Brady’s biggest challenge in this contest?
McBride: Getting everyone involved.
Princiotti: Can’t fear contact in this one. Brady gets rid of the ball very quickly, which will help the Patriots negate that pass rush. But often that means throwing the ball a split-second before the rush gets there, and he has to step up in the pocket and be tough there.
Volin: Finishing drives. Patriots were 15th in red-zone touchdown percentage, and the Chargers defense was the fifth stingiest in the red zone. I think the Patriots will be able to move the ball between the 20s, but they’ve got to score some touchdowns. The short-yardage rushing has been fairly horrible this year. Hopefully they spent two weeks working on it.
Yes or no. Do you think James White and Rex Burkhead will combine for more catches than all of the Patriots receivers?
Volin: I actually say no . . . I think Julian Edelman will have a good game, maybe 7-8 catches, then Cordarrelle Patterson will have a few on designed plays, and Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett will chip in a few. I think White will be heavily involved, but Burkhead has really struggled this year, so it’s hard to predict a big game for him
Princiotti: Now there’s totally going to be one Cordarrelle Patterson jet sweep that’s marked as a catch that ruins this.
If the Patriots lose this, what do you foresee the fallout being, if any?
Volin: Fire Belichick, trade Brady.
Princiotti: Uhhhhh. Somehow that seems unlikely. I just think Brady could make a good case that the team didn’t give him a good enough supporting cast and the team could make a case that Brady isn’t what he used to be. That sounds like tension to me.
Volin: OK, but seriously . . . not much fallout. Belichick is going to come back. McDaniels is back. De facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores could be back, depending on what happens with the Miami head coaching job. A few key players will possibly be gone next year, like Gronk and Dont’a Hightower. And maybe director of player personnel Nick Caserio gets a GM job that comes open later this spring. But I don’t see too much change coming this offseason.
McBride: Very little fallout. I think Belichick has a plan for the future mapped out, win or lose. Nobody is going to be retained or cut based on his performance in this game.
Who retires first — Antonio Gates or Gronkowski?
McBride: Gates. If Gronkowski is rejuvenated in the offseason and feels good after a month off, he’ll want to keep playing.
Volin: Sounds like Gates wants to come back next year, and the Chargers don’t mind having him around. Gronk looks like he’s playing his final days right now, but I wouldn’t totally close the door on him yet. He’s scheduled to hold a youth camp in June at one of the local high schools. I’m positive the Patriots will want to reduce his $10 million salary, but I can’t say for sure that they won’t offer him, say, $4 million-$5 million next year, maybe even with some incentives. And that’s still pretty good money for Gronk.
Any final thoughts?
Volin: Can’t do this without offering predictions!
McBride: The weather will have no bearing on this game.
Volin: I’m going Patriots, 23-20. I think they will hold the Chargers to field goals, do just enough on offense, and create one or two big plays on defense and/or special teams.
And Nora? Any predictions?
Volin: No wimping out! I want to see score predictions.
McBride: Brady 8, Rivers 0.
Princiotti: Big day for James White. Eight catches. I really am tempted to pick the Chargers in this, but the Patriots haven’t lost at home and I feel like I’ve got to respect that. I’ll go Patriots, 27-26.
Volin: That’s kind of how I feel, too.