FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Nothing has come easy for the New England Patriots this season. That theme should continue in the playoffs.
After last weekend’s wild card round, the Patriots faced the worst-case scenario heading into the league’s divisional round. The best-case scenario probably would have been facing the Houston Texans, but they fell to the No. 6 seeded Indianapolis Colts. That left the Pats with two options: the Baltimore Ravens or Los Angeles Chargers.
Although the Ravens have a history of giving the Patriots problems and they have the NFL’s top-ranked defense, their inconsistent offense made for a better matchup than Sunday’s winner and next opponent, the Chargers. Los Angeles (12-4) won more games than the Patriots (11-5) and have more Pro Bowl players (seven to two) and first-team All-Pros (three to one).
For a team that’s been consistently inconsistent this season, the Patriots will need to right their wrongs and play their best football if they want to advance in the playoffs.
“They tied for the best record in the AFC, won a lot of games this year,” said Patriots safety Duron Harmon. “They were able to win on the road as well. It’s going to be a great challenge for us as a football team.”
The Patriots still have home-field advantage and experience on their side. Philip Rivers, although talented, has rarely beaten the Patriots. He’s 1-5 in the regular season and 0-2 in the playoffs against New England. His only win came in 2008 against quarterback Matt Cassel.
During the 2017 season, the Patriots came away with a 21-13 win over the Chargers. In that game, Brady was 14 of 15 for 153 yards when targeting running backs James White, Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis.
The defense led the way even though it was without Stephon Gilmore, Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Brown and then No. 3 cornerback Eric Rowe. It limited the Chargers to one offensive touchdown, which happened to be an 87-yard touchdown run by Melvin Gordon. (It was actually the longest rushing touchdown given up by a Bill Belichick-led Patriots team.)
A solid defensive effort will be needed again this weekend. Gordon, when healthy, is one of the best running backs in the NFL. Their No.1 receiver, Keenan Allen, is a Pro Bowler and Rivers’ No. 2 target. Mike Williams is a 6-foot-4 target who finished the season with 664 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.
Rivers had a season comparable to Brady. He threw for 46 fewer passing yards, but had 62 fewer attempts. He threw for more interceptions (12 to 11), but had more touchdowns (32 to 29) and a better passer rating (105.5 to 97.7).
Then there’s the Chargers defense. The secondary boasts two All Pro players — safety Derwin James and cornerback Desmond King. The defensive line has two Pro Bowl-type players and two of the better pass-rushers in the league with Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. It’s not far-fetched to say that this Los Angeles team has more talent than the Pats.
Of course, nothing on paper matters in the playoffs.