Saturday’s AFC wild card game affirmed the belief of those Patriots fans who were hoping it would be the Texans coming to Foxborough next weekend, and those who said the surging Colts aren’t a six-seed to be cast aside from the list of contenders. It also meant Sunday’s AFC tilt would determine which club will head to Gillette Stadium for the divisional round — and it was the Chargers who earned that first crack at dethroning the conference’s reigning kings, Los Angeles surviving a late Ravens rally to secure a 23-17 victory and resuscitate what was a burgeoning rivalry way back in the first half of New England’s dynastic run.
Here are five Patriot-centric takeaways from the Bolts’ ticket-punching triumph.
LA’S PASS RUSH WREAKS HAVOC
The dominant force in Sunday’s affair was the Chargers’ defense, specifically a front seven that so disrupted the Ravens’ aerial plans that through 50 minutes Baltimore had negative-11 net passing yards. By the end of the day they’d dropped quarterback Lamar Jackson seven times, costing him 55 yards, and with those sacks accounted for the Ravens gained a paltry 3.9 yards per pass play. Baltimore punted or turned the ball over on each of its first seven possessions, went about two hours of real time between completions, and didn’t run a play on Los Angeles’s side of the field until the third quarter.
Melvin Ingram, Justin Jones, and Joey Bosa were beasts up front, each getting a couple of hits on Jackson, and combining for four sacks. Ingram forced a fumble, then recovered another when Uchenna Nwosu’s strip sack clinched victory in the final minute, and the Chargers had an interception, as well. All told, Sunday afternoon validated the individual talent on a defense that finished the regular season ranked eighth in points and ninth in yards allowed, and the coaching staff that kept moving Ingram and Bosa to different places along the line deserves credit for coming up with a scheme that allowed those abilities to flourish.
The question, however, is now this: How much of Sunday’s success was the product of capitalizing on a rookie quarterback who’s yet to really establish himself as a pro passer?
Because that game doesn’t necessarily align with the defense the Chargers have been throughout this season.
Ingram and Bosa are both special individuals, and maybe the team’s numbers would’ve been different if Bosa hadn’t missed nine games due to injury. But the same Chargers defense that had seven sacks on Sunday finished with just 38 in the regular season, which tied for 19th in the NFL. Further, Los Angeles generated a total of five turnovers during an eight-game span coming out of its bye, and would’ve likely finished among the league’s bottom five in takeaways had it not pilfered the Broncos four times in the finale.
Those statistics say Sunday was more of a standout exception for the Chargers than it was an indicator of what the Los Angeles defense does week to week, and after the game players and coaches talked about using seven defensive backs and going with smaller, speedier personnel in an effort to combat Jackson’s strengths. They appeared able to confuse him early, and contain him for most of the day.
But can they scheme up something just as effective against Tom Brady, the 41-year-old who says he’s seen it all and knows all the answers to the test? Brady and Jackson have such different styles, the gameplans against them would figure to be significantly different from each other — so it would figure that LA might need to find a way to get the same end through an entirely different set of means.
It’s not beyond the realm that teams could come to Gillette and frustrate or fluster Brady. Others have done it, and the Chargers have a chance to do it, too. But a regular season’s worth of evidence suggests replicating Sunday’s performance won’t be simple.
RIVERS CONTINUES HIS RECENT MEDIOCRITY
Watching Philip Rivers at this point feels a lot like Peyton Manning at the end of his career. When the ball leaves his hand it looks ugly, like it’s floating and fluttering and ripe for the pickin’ … but somehow it almost always winds up getting where it needs to be. Accurately, and on time.
Remember, too, that version of Peyton Manning had enough in him to beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship, and Rivers is now 13-4 in his age-37 season. There was talk of him as an MVP candidate as recently as a month ago, and his body of work will put him in the Hall-of-Fame conversation years from now. He is as competitive as they come, even 15 years into his career.
However, Rivers has regressed lately. Sunday marked the fifth straight week in which his passer rating failed to reach 100 — after his rating entered triple digits in 10 of his team’s first 12 contests. Over those five games he’s thrown four touchdowns to six interceptions, and didn’t have either of those in the wild-card win, when he failed to surpass 181 yards for the third consecutive game. Two of those have come against Baltimore, which was among the league’s elite defenses, but the five-game sample in which he’s struggled also included games against Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Denver, all of which statistically rate as below-average pass defenses.
New England rates among the lower-half of the league, too. The Patriots were 22nd in yards allowed through the air. But in five games since the start of December, the Pats have yielded only 195 yards on average, a pace that would put them second in the league if projected over a full season. They’ve risen their level of play of late — and it has coincided with Rivers’s decline. If those trends continue Sunday, the Patriots should be in a good spot.
AN OFFENSE WITH WEAPONS … AND DOUBTS?
When comparing the potency of the skill position players in each offense, the Chargers stack up well against the Patriots. Running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler each averaged better than five yards per carry while catching at least 39 passes this season. Keenan Allen is one of the best receivers in the game, Mike Williams scored 10 touchdowns this season, and Tyrell Williams averaged more than 15 yards on his 41 grabs. Virgil Green and Antonio Gates are capable tight ends.
Yet despite having all that talent around a reliable quarterback, the Chargers seemed to play a little bit scared in Sunday’s win. It could have been the result of the way the Ravens pushed them around a couple of weeks earlier, limiting them to 10 points and 198 yards of offense, though on most series Los Angeles seemed to prioritize putting themselves in position for third-and-manageable opportunities, more than looking to make a big play.
There were a lot of short passes. A lot of unimaginative runs. A lot of instances where Rivers ran out of the pocket and got rid of the ball quickly rather than waiting for something to potentially develop. Although he was only sacked once, he appeared to spend much of the game on the move.
And it didn’t really work. The Chargers went 6 for 17 on third down. They gained 16 yards or less on 10 of their 14 possessions. They put together a drive of 50-plus yards only once in each half. They gained at least 10 yards on just six of 66 plays from scrimmage, and as bad as Baltimore’s 3.9 yards per play average was, Los Angeles’s 3.7 was even worse.
The Chargers are usually better at sustaining drives, ranking seventh league-wide in terms of yards per possession (34.7), but the Patriots will present a challenge in their effort to get back to that. New England kept its opponents to the shortest drives in the league this season in terms of the clock, fourth-shortest by measure of plays per series, and 11th-shortest according to yardage.
If Los Angeles isn’t more aggressive, it could play into the Patriots’ strengths — and give Brady’s sometimes-inconsistent offense more opportunities to do damage.
IT COULD COME DOWN TO WHO CASHES IN
The Chargers’ season wasn’t safe until Nwosu stripped Jackson with 19 seconds to play, and they nearly let a 23-3 lead evaporate over the final nine minutes — though in reality they had every opportunity to put the game away far earlier, and should’ve been deep into celebration by the time the clock ticked its final tocks.
Not counting the final series that followed the aforementioned fumble, Los Angeles started four possessions in Baltimore territory, and another at the 50. They came away from those drives with a total of nine points, three successful kicks joined by a blocked field goal and a punt. Eleven of the Chargers’ 14 other points were the results of drives that began within 10 yards of midfield.
Officially, the Chargers were just 1-for-2 in the red zone, and never actually got themselves in a goal-to-go situation, so the stat sheet doesn’t fully reflect how many chances they left on the field in largely wasting three turnovers, a 72-yard kickoff return, and a 33-yard punt return. If they had taken advantage of those chances, it would’ve been a different game. And that’s where the Patriots shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security by the vulnerabilities the Bolts displayed at the end.
Over the balance of the season, Los Angeles is a better red-zone team than New England. Offensively it scored touchdowns on better than 64 percent of its trips inside the opponents’ 20, which was 10th in the NFL. By comparison, the Patriots ranked right in the middle of the pack, 16th, in red-zone defense.
Flipping the scenario, the Patriots’ offense reached the end zone on 59 percent of its visits to that portion of the field, good for 15th in the end, but in their moments of struggle the inability to punch it in was a blatant concern. Facing the Chargers won’t make that any less of a concern, given that Los Angeles’ defense was the fifth-toughest to score against in the red zone.
There’s enough among the body of work submitted by each of these teams to suggest that Sunday will be a tight game, potentially so tight it’s decided by a few plays here or there. Traditionally those are the types of games the Patriots win. Situational football is typically a tenet of life in Foxborough, and when the moment presents itself the Pats are usually ready to seize it. Usually. This year’s been a little different, to the degree there is still some doubt about the ability of New England’s offense to rise when it matters most.
THERE MAY BE OPPORTUNITIES IN THE KICKING GAME
Had the meltdown at Miami never happened, and the Patriots secured the No. 1 seed in the AFC, there might’ve been a case to make that New England had ascended to the top of the conference on the strength of its ability to disrupt the opposing punter. Before giving away that game against the Dolphins, the Pats blocked a couple of punts and turned those into points. Earlier in the year they blocked another punt that was returned directly for a touchdown, and proved pivotal in a victory over the Bears.
So Joe Judge’s special teams group had to be licking its lips watching what Los Angeles let happen on Sunday.
The Chargers allowed the Ravens to get their hands on both a field goal and a punt — furthering LA’s concerns about protecting its kickers. The Chargers allowed a punt block in the end zone that gave the Rams a touchdown in Week 3, then last month the Steelers nearly got their hands on one punt, then actually did knock down the next.
So it’s an issue Los Angeles has been dealing with since the start of the season, and one they’ve apparently still been unable to fix, which likely means it’s one the Pats will seek to expose. And one that could create opportunities to tilt the game.