The New England Patriots are coming off what has become their annual bye-week during the playoffs to host one of the league’s three wild-card teams in the AFC Divisional round, the Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers, after outlasting the three-seeded Baltimore Ravens during their Wild Card matchup, will travel across the country for the second straight week having won four of their last five games.
Veteran quarterback Philip Rivers looks to bounce back following a game in which he only amassed 160 passing yards. However, the Patriots defense is not that of the Ravens and with the Chargers having a healthy Melvin Gordon and receiving corps, the Patriots defense will have their hands full on Sunday.
But the true test for the Pats may come on the other side of the ball. The Chargers defense will look to build on their stifling performance against the Ravens. Entering the fourth quarter of the contest, the Chargers had all but done away with Lamar Jackson. Fans were enraged at their lack of offense and even called for Joe Flacco to replace Jackson. That is not an easy thing to do, especially for an otherwise loyal fanbase.
However, Tom Brady will prove himself a much different animal than Jackson. Brady has not struggled to generate productive outings through the air. He passed for a total of 4,355 yards and 29 touchdowns in the regular season despite having no elite receivers. While Brady is not as mobile as Jackson, he may give the Chargers defense their greatest test yet. Regardless, the offense as a whole will struggle to avoid the likes of Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Derwin James, among many others.
With the Patriots “regular season” kicking off, there is no shortage of hot takes to go around. Here are some bold predictions for the Patriots Divisional Round matchup
Bold Predictions for the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Round
Patriots Backfield Will Light Up the Bolts
This prediction can cut two separate ways, both through the air and on the ground. The Chargers struggling to cover receivers out of the backfield has been a topic of conversation all week, with the team ranking 23rd in the league in this category. The Patriots, however, have had no problem exploiting mismatches with James White against a linebacker. White, ranking second in the NFL with 751 receiving yards, is poised to have another big day on Sunday. He has often operated as Brady’s safety blanket all season, with his involvement in the offense directly correlating to wins.
The Chargers may have found a temporary solution to this, as their defense thrived while utilizing six or seven defensive backs against the Ravens. With the Bolts’ lack of linebacker options, Gus Bradley’s defense often played Derwin James and Adrian Phillips in those positions. While this strategy worked for a Ravens team that never adjusted, this likely will not work against Brady and Bill Belichick.
While White is able to expose a team’s weaknesses through the air, rookie running back Sony Michel has operated as a perfect counterpart on the ground. Averaging 71.6 YPG in his rookie season, the team has been employed the fire-and-ice combination with Michel and White. If the Chargers play James and Phillips, two safeties, up in the box, Michel will gash the Chargers on the ground. And if the Chargers employ a standard, run-stopping linebacker to counter Michel, White will expose a much greater weakness through the air. Any way it’s cut, the Patriots backfield duo holds the key for an otherwise daunting Chargers defense.
J.C. Jackson Will Back Up His Talk
Ahead of Sunday’s contest, Patriots rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson exuded confidence.
“I feel like nobody could catch a pass on me, that’s my mindset… Whoever I’m guarding, whoever’s in front of me, that’s my job. Make sure he doesn’t catch the ball”.
Quotes such as this one are justified after the season Jackson has had. Taking the Malcolm Butler route to New England as a rookie UDFA, Jackson has surpassed Butler in regards to rookie year performance. While playing more than double the snaps of Butler, Jackson has allowed fewer yards on more targets to go along with six passed defended and three interceptions. Furthermore, Jackson’s QBR allowed was near the top of the league, coming in at 37.9.
While Jackson is still young, there is no reason to expect his youth will show on Sunday. While Stephon Gilmore will likely shadow Keenan Allen, expect Jackson to take the second-best receiver the Chargers roll out on any given play. Throughout the season, Jackson has proven himself capable of playing a shutdown role on the outside, regardless of the matchup. If Rivers and the Chargers look to test Jackson early, they likely will send the ball back into the hands of Brady and the Patriots offense.
The Patriots Defense Will Stifle the Bolts
The Patriots defense has been no stranger to criticism over the course of the season. While many fans remain frustrated by the lack of pressure and their propensity to give up big plays, the unit is not as poor as it seems. Led by Trey Flowers in the front and Stephon Gilmore in the back, Brian Flores’ defense is not one to underestimate. Facing an experienced veteran in Rivers, along with a healthy Melvin Gordon and Allen, the defense will have their hands full come Sunday. Add an All-Pro tight end in Hunter Henry to the mix, and suddenly Patriots fans may begin to sweat.
But New England fans should remain optimistic, as this defense remains loaded with talent on the backend. Rotating Jason McCourty, Gilmore, and Jackson on the outside, along with Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon at safety, gives the team a deep, talented group to halt the Chargers air attack. Furthermore, run-stuffer Danny Shelton, along with Flowers and Dont’a Hightower, should force Gordon to work for every yard he gets.
Last Word on the AFC Divisional Round
Overall, both teams project to play a close, physical game come Sunday. With the Chargers having to make a second trip to the east coast in as many weeks, as well as a below-freezing forecast, the Patriots should be able to exploit a tired and cold Chargers team. Throw in how dominant New England is at home, and the Patriots have a good chance to come away with a win on Sunday. The Kansas City Chiefs or Indianapolis Colts await in the AFC Championship.