The New England Patriots are as much a part of January as bowl games, snowstorms and presidential inaugurations.
Contrast that with Sunday’s opponent, the Los Angeles Chargers, who have been playoff irregulars since winning four straight AFC West titles from 2006-09 while playing in San Diego. This is just their second playoff appearance this decade.
Yet when Los Angeles invades Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., for an AFC semifinal matchup, New England swears it won’t be overlooking the Chargers. And based on this season, there’s no reason for the Patriots to look past anyone.
At 11-5, the Patriots were good enough to earn the AFC’s second bye. But there were occasional signs of slippage. A lack of quickness on defense was exposed in surprising double-figure road losses to non-playoff teams Detroit and Tennessee.
And New England’s defense will get a stern test from a Chargers offense led by 37-year old Philip Rivers, who threw for at least 4,000 yards for the sixth straight year and also collected 30 touchdown passes for the sixth time in his career.
Rivers is also getting a big reinforcement. Tight end Hunter Henry, who tore his ACL during OTAs in May, has been added to the active roster and is expected to play Sunday.
“He’s really excited,” second-year Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “We still need to see him play more football.”
Henry caught 45 passes last year after grabbing eight touchdown strikes as a rookie in 2016.
“It gives them another weapon with a great quarterback who can use all of his weapons at all of the positions,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “It’s another brick on the pile that we’ll have to deal with.”
The biggest problem for New England might be the Los Angeles defense. The Chargers dismantled Baltimore’s run-first offense for three quarters in last week’s 23-17 wild card win, then came up with the game-clinching play on Melvin Ingram’s strip-sack in the last minute. Part of the key for the Chargers was the unveiling by coordinator Gus Bradley of a seven-defensive back formation. That look could be back as the Chargers pull out all the stops to defend one of the great quarterbacks of all time.
Obviously, the spectrum of quarterback skill would not include Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and dynamic runner, erratic passer Lamar Jackson of the Ravens on the same plain.
“It’s night and day, no doubt about it,” Lynn said of going from prepping for Jackson to Brady. “... We’ve had reps at this (preparing for a pro style quarterback) all year. Our defense is about being in the positions we’re supposed to be in, doing the details of our assignments and playing fast.”
New England was fifth in the NFL in rushing, which could be a boon for Brady in a game where wet, wintry weather could be a factor. New England averaged more than 127 yards per game and scored 18 yards on the ground in the regular season. Despite knee issues, rookie Sony Michael had 931 rushing yards.
No matter, Ingram and Joey Bosa, who combined for three of Los Angeles’ seven sacks last week, figure to be the focus of the Patriots’ offensive line. Keep them away from Brady and he should have time to find open receivers. Fail to keep them from Brady and the season could end.
Bosa, the son of Keene High School graduate John Bosa, who played three seasons for the Miami Dolphins in the 1980s, says the task this week will be different from what it was against the mobile but still raw Lamar Jackson.
“We had a better idea of what they were going to do, and you kind of saw that in the first half,” Bosa said after the win in Baltimore. “It will be a different challenge next week with a true drop-back quarterback.”
Brady benefited from the bye week, but said he spent most of his time preparing for the divisional round. Brady has not directly addressed his ailing knee, but video evidence from many angles suggest he’s been ailing for weeks.
No matter, Brady says. It’s time to buckle the chin strap and play the trophy games that matter.
“They don’t really give you any plays,” Brady said this week. “They don’t void any zone (coverage). They put pressure on you with a great rush. And I think that’s the challenging part — anytime they can rush four guys and force the ball out quickly, really reading the quarterback, break on the ball — they force turnovers. ... You hold the ball for an extra tick of a second and it’s a strip sack by Ingram or Bosa.”