Ever since Rex Ryan’s Jets came into Foxborough, Mass., and stunned the Patriots in the 2010 playoffs, divisional round visitors have been overwhelmingly non-competitive at Gillette Stadium.
The Pats have won their past seven divisional round matchups by an average score of 37-20. All but two of those opponents — the 2014 Ravens and the 2015 Chiefs — were rocked by double digits.
This time, there’s bound to be some suspense.
The Chargers punched their ticket for Foxborough on Sunday as they held off the Ravens, 23-17, in the Wild Card game. Kickoff is set for 1:05 p.m. next Sunday.
By any measure, they’re the most accomplished divisional round opponent for the Patriots in the past decade.
“We know the run they’ve had,” quarterback Philip Rivers said on the CBS broadcast. “It seems like forever, they’re always in these games, and games beyond...We’re going to fly back home, and then we’re going to fly back out here for another 10 a.m. West Coast kick. We really don’t care.”
The Chargers enter with 13 wins, many of them on the road. They rallied from a two-touchdown deficit in the second half for a 29-28 win at the Chiefs in Week 15, grabbing their first lead of the game on a two-point conversion with four seconds remaining. They also erased a 16-point halftime deficit at Pittsburgh for a wild 33-30 victory in Week 13. The Chargers lost just one road game all season, a Week 3 matchup at the cross-city rival Rams.
After finishing tied with the Chiefs atop the AFC West and splitting head-to-head, the Chargers ceded the second tiebreaker to Kansas City and lost out on a first-round bye. But at 12-4 in the regular season, they’re not a typical wild card team.
Their strengths? A little bit of everything.
Rivers enjoyed one of his best seasons at age 37. His 105.5 passer rating was tied for the best of his career, excluding his rookie season when he played only two games. Rivers leans on one of the league’s best possession receivers, Keenan Allen, and a pair of tall, athletic big-play threats in Mike Williams and Tyrell Williams.
The Patriots have an All-Pro cornerback in Stephon Gilmore, but how will they deploy him? Allen often works from the slot. Gilmore occasionally follows No. 1 receivers inside, but his top assets are his length and physicality versus perimeter receivers. The Pats could choose to stick Gilmore on the 6-foot-3 Mike Williams, who makes acrobatic downfield catches on a weekly basis.
The Chargers’ running game is among the most efficient in the league, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. Lead back Melvin Gordon averaged 114.6 yards from scrimmage in 12 games, but has been dinged up over the past month.
He entered the Wild Card game nursing a right knee injury, then suffered a left knee injury in the first quarter against the Ravens. Gordon returned and finished with 40 yards and a touchdown.
Rivers often targets Gordon and Austin Ekeler on quick, high-percentage throws to the flat, similar to how the Patriots use their running backs (Chargers tailbacks combined for 136 targets, while the Pats’ trio of James White, Sony Michel, and Rex Burkhead amassed 154).
Gordon and Ekeler will test the athleticism of the Patriots’ defense in the passing game. The Patriots had issues against pass-catching running backs early in the season, but they improved significantly down the stretch.
Defensively, Los Angeles is a well-rounded group with star players at each level. Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa are a dominant duo on the edge. They move around the defensive front, which means Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon could see both players throughout the game.
Casey Hayward is a two-time Pro Bowler at cornerback. Rookie safety Derwin James has emerged as a big-time playmaker, as well.
If the Chargers defense is weak in any area, it’s against running backs in the passing game. They gave up a league-worst 973 receiving yards to running backs during the regular season. This bodes well for White and Burkhead.
The Chargers will be the first 12-4 team to visit Gillette for the divisional round since the 2012 Texans (the letterman jacket crew), who were thoroughly beaten, 41-28.
Like the Texans, the Chargers have had little to no success historically against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
For his career, Rivers is 1-7 against the Patriots. His lone win came in 2008, when Brady was out for the season with a torn ACL. He’s lost twice to the Patriots in the postseason, most recently in the 2007 AFC Championship game.
The Chargers visited the Patriots in Week 8 of the 2017 season, losing 21-13.
The winner of next Sunday’s divisional round game will face the winner of the Chiefs-Colts matchup in the AFC Championship Game.