Patriots’ keys to victory over the Chargers
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When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough
TV, radio: CBS, WBZ-FM 98.5
When the Chargers run
Melvin Gordon is a chiseled back with stupendous size, strength, speed, and a savage and shifty stride. The 6-foot-1-inch, 215-pounder can eat up large chunks of yardage in just a few steps. Gordon is a patient runner who spots lanes quickly, explodes through them, and gets into the secondary in a flash. He’s a tough inside runner but he can bounce outside, too. Gordon’s straight-line speed is impressive but his ability to change gears and directions to avoid defenders is ridiculous. He can hammer defenses and also hit home runs. Austin Ekeler is a compactly built back who runs with far more power than a 5-9, 195-pounder has a right to. Ekeler runs low and with excellent balance. He can dip his shoulder, drive through defenders, and deliver punishment. Justin Jackson has speed and agility. He can bounce into openings and through cutback lanes fluidly. Center Mike Pouncey sets the tone for this offensive line. He’s strong and surly and plays through the echo of the whistle. Right guard Michael Schofield has strong hands and will lock on to defenders and twist and turn around to clear paths. Left guard Dan Feeney is athletic and plays with great leverage. On the Patriots defensive line, Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton will provide the first detours. Brown is strong and quick while Shelton can anchor. They’ll need to help create lanes for the linebackers to fill. That crew includes the instinctive Dont’a Hightower, the versatile Kyle Van Noy, and the speedy and hard-hitting Elandon Roberts.
RUSHING YARDS PER GAME
Los Angeles offense: 117.1 (15th)
New England defense: 112.7 (11th)
When the Chargers pass
Philip Rivers is your classic dropback big-boy quarterback with the not-so-classic big-boy delivery. If you’re looking for an aesthetically pleasing throwing motion, then Rivers is not your guy. If you’re looking for a guy who can sling a short-arm, sidearm throw with accuracy, Rivers is most definitely your guy. The fiery Rivers (6 feet 5 inches, 228 pounds) has excellent pocket presence and reads through his progressions quickly. He is as well-prepared and savvy as they come. He recognizes defenses in a flash — there’s not much the 15-year veteran hasn’t seen — and sets his protections and identifies mismatches. He is no threat to run, but he has active feet and will use them to buy an extra split-second in the pocket. Rivers is a master at getting all of his formidable weapons involved. He has three ginormous receivers in Keenan Allen (6-2, 211), Mike Williams (6-4, 220), and Tyrell Williams (6-4, 205). Allen is one of the NFL’s very best. He’s a sublime route runner and runs every single one in the tree. He has excellent speed and strength and will fight for every ball. Mike Williams gets off the line quickly, accelerates smoothly, and uses his strong hands to subtly create separation and snatch throws. Tyrell Williams has excellent speed and reliable hands. Tight ends Antonio Gates (he’s as savvy as ever) and Hunter Henry (he’s fresh!) are two more big targets. Running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler are super safety valves.
PASSING YARDS PER GAME
Los Angeles offense: 255.6 (10th)
New England defense: 246.4 (22nd)
When the Patriots run
Sony Michel is a strong runner whose patience and awareness steadily improved throughout the season. The 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pounder is an urgent runner by nature but has learned to hesitate for half a heartbeat to allow his blocks to develop and lanes to open. Michel is thick and muscular, and he will drive through opponents after initial contact and fight for more yardage. He has a lot of life left in his powerful legs, and his agility and acceleration allow him to absorb glancing blows and extend runs into the secondary. He doesn’t have LeGarrette Blount’s size but he’s similar in style and in that he’ll get stronger as the game goes on. Michel may get stymied on some early runs, but stick with the rookie and he’ll break one. Rex Burkhead has good instincts and deceptive burst and power. He will always give second and third efforts. James White is slick and shifty. White glides through openings smoothly, has good lateral moves, and will build speed. James Develin is the lane opener. The big fullback can take out multiple defenders and also cash in short-yardage situations. New England’s interior three of David Andrews, Joe Thuney, and Shaq Mason work well on combo blocks and will need one of their top efforts to deal with a talented front seven. Chargers nose tackle Brandon Mebane is an explosive run stuffer who can stack, shed, and stun. Safeties Derwin James and Adrian Phillips are like hybrid linebackers. They can play close to the box and will fill lanes and land some thundering hits.
RUSHING YARDS PER GAME
New England offense: 127.3 (fifth)
Los Angeles defense: 105.8 (ninth)
When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady played perhaps his best game of the season in Week 17, posting season highs in touchdowns (4) and passer rating (133.8). Granted, the competition was the moribund Jets, but seeing Brady drive and spread the ball around was encouraging with the postseason looming. His encyclopedic knowledge of defenses and his ability to process information quickly make it hard to fool him. He routinely exploits mismatches by hitting his second, third, and fourth options. Brady’s go-to guy is always the open one. More often than not, that’s Julian Edelman. The slick slot receiver with the quick feet and strong hands is adept at shaking coverage and finding soft spots. He’ll face a big challenge going against Desmond King, one of game’s elite nickel corners. King is physical and sticky throughout the route. Chris Hogan is sneaky fast and versatile. He can run every route and will find soft spots. Phillip Dorsett has excellent speed and reliable hands but has trouble consistently gaining separation because of a comparative lack of size and strength. Rob Gronkowski’s statistics are down, but nobody will remember that if he returns to form this week. He still has exceptional size and strength. It’ll be interesting to see if the week off helped his speed. James White is a devil out of the backfield. Los Angeles’s linebacking corps has had trouble containing pass-catching backs, and White and Rex Burkhead could excel in this one.
PASSING YARDS PER GAME
New England offense: 266.1 (eighth)
Los Angeles defense: 227.9 (ninth)
Chargers’ key player: Desmond King
If this talented slot corner can put the wraps on Julian Edelman, it could put the brakes on New England’s offense. Tom Brady relies on quick hits to his clutch receiver, particularly on third downs.
How he beats you: With instincts and physicality. King gets right up on his opponent and will track throughout the route with great mirror skills. Oh, and he’s also a superb return man on kickoffs and punts.
How to shut him down: By matching that physicality — and playing keep-away. Edelman has to get up on King’s toes and keep him off-balance. In the kicking game, boot it through the end zone and angle the punts out of bounds.
Chargers’ keys to victory
1. Electric avenue: The defense must get Tom Brady off his spot. If he’s given the time or is allowed to step up and deliver strikes, he will rock on through this defense.
2. Electric atmosphere: Don’t fall behind. The Chargers have been tremendous on the road, but Gillette Stadium is no ordinary venue. Follow the game plan from Baltimore and don’t freak out.
3. Electric blanket: Contain James White. The Chargers have had trouble containing receivers out of the backfield, and they’ll face a huge challenge with Sweet Feet. Get him on the ground quickly or he’ll be dancing all afternoon.
Patriots’ keys to victory
1. Red-hot take: This team can’t settle for field goals when it reaches the red zone. It’s been an area of trouble at times this season, but touchdowns win playoff games, so empty the playbook and get the 7.
2. Red-hot take II: Bend but don’t break when the Chargers get to the red zone. Los Angeles scored just one touchdown in three trips last week. Another performance like that and the Chargers will fizzle.
3. Red army: New England’s versatile safety trio of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon has to support the troops near the line of scrimmage while also helping out over the top.
PREDICTION: Patriots 24, Chargers 22