The second-seeded Patriots are set to host the fifth-seeded Los Angeles Chargers in the AFC divisional round Sunday at 1 p.m.
Boston.com chatted with Sam Fortier, who grew up in New England and now covers the Chargers for The Athletic. The topics ranged from L.A. football culture to the weather forecast to Philip Rivers’s growth – and of course there’s a prediction at the end.
Boston.com: In some ways, this is a Boston-Los Angeles matchup, but in some ways it’s not at all. Do you feel like the city of L.A. is embracing this team, or is there not much buzz in the area?
The Athletic: Not too much buzz yet because the Chargers are still second-class citizens in Los Angeles. The Rams got here first. They’ve had more success. They have a more innovative, offensive-minded head coach and, as you can see right now, that’s kind of where the NFL is headed. They have more star power in Todd Gurley, Ndamakong Suh, and Aaron Donald, and they were part of that 54-51 Chiefs game earlier this year.
All the grocery stores here have Rams gear, even where I live (in Long Beach). I would not say that this feels like a Boston-L.A. rivalry just yet. If the Chargers are here for one or two more decades, and a generation of Angelenos grow up rooting for them, maybe we can have that conversation, but until you’re the logo on the beer of the grocery store, I don’t think it’s Boston-L.A.
BDC: Do you feel like this could be a game to put them on the map? Of course it’s not going to happen over night, but if they win this game, do you think it could significantly change the culture for the better?
TA: Absolutely. This game is very important to them for many reasons, but that is one of them – carving out a market in L.A. and showing that they’re legitimate contenders. Beating Baltimore is obviously good, but people can dismiss that because it’s kind of a gimmick with a running quarterback. If you can go into New England, a place where the Patriots haven’t lost this year, and defeat the NFL’s boogeymen in the back of every coach and player’s closet in Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, that makes a gigantic statement – even if the Patriots aren’t the dominant force they usually are. If Philip Rivers can win his first game in eight tries against Brady, that will go a long way toward establishing the credibility of the Chargers in Los Angeles.
BDC: The Chargers are 9-0 when they get on a plane for a game. Is that a coincidence, or is there more of a concrete reason for the trend? What do you attribute that to?
TA: Running back Melvin Gordon says that this Chargers team is so good on the road because they don’t play any home games. Their home stadium, Dignity Health Sports Park, has 27,000 seats. It’s a soccer stadium. It’s usually packed with at least 50 percent opposing fans. The Baltimore game earlier this year was the first time I had ever seen it with just as many Chargers fans as the opposing team’s fans. When you don’t play any home games, and the ticket prices are really expensive and prohibit your fans from coming out, every game feels like your back’s against the wall.
Gordon, Russell Okung, and a lot of other players have acknowledged that their home doesn’t feel like their home. When you’re on the road, at least people are being more straight up about it. They’ve really embraced that.
BDC: One benefit of playing in L.A. is the weather. Sunday’s forecast in Foxborough calls for high 20s, and the Chargers haven’t played in an atmosphere like this all season. Do you think the weather will be a significant factor in this game, or do you think they’ll be able to brush it aside and play football?
TA: The opposing venue might not bother them, but the weather might. It’s hard to say concretely, though, because the Chargers have not played a game in the temperature that’s forecasted for New England on Sunday. On a Sunday in early January in Baltimore, it was something like 50 degrees, so that didn’t really give us a look at what the Chargers will be like if it’s that cold.
One thing I will say is that Anthony Lynn, the head coach of the Chargers, is a Bill Parcells disciple, and one of the core tenets of his coaching philosophy is that he wants a balanced offense. With Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler, their two running backs, they can take it out of the backfield at any time. Philip Rivers can dink and dunk, he can shoot it deep. Anthony Lynn has built his philosophy on being able to do a bunch of different things and adapting to what the defense does, and I would imagine what the weather does as well. It will be a great test for the Chargers if the temperature does play a factor.
BDC: It’s no secret the Chargers will likely need a terrific showing from Philip Rivers to win this game. The national consensus seems to be that Rivers has turned a corner this year and reached a new level. Do you think that’s accurate, or is it more a product of having a better supporting cast that’s made him look much better?
TA: Philip Rivers is playing his best season of his career at 37 years old. It’s remarkable, and it’s the byproduct of Anthony Lynn coaching. One of Lynn’s other core tenets is don’t turn the ball over – make the other team beat you, don’t beat yourself.
When he came in after 2016, Rivers led the league with 21 interceptions, and Lynn held him accountable on every throw. He said, ‘Hey, you don’t need to chuck it up into double coverage, hoping to get a big touchdown, when you’re down by two scores in the second half. You don’t have to make those risky plays anymore. I want you dinking and dunking. I want you playing it safe. If you don’t turn it over, we have a better chance of coming back.’
"It gives them another weapon with a great quarterback who can use all of his weapons…"
— Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) January 8, 2019
As we’ve seen, in road comebacks, in Kansas City down two scores in the second half, in Pittsburgh down two scores in the second half, the Chargers have relied on Rivers remaining within himself, betraying the quarterback he’s always been and playing his new brand of football under Lynn. That is, I think, the biggest reason why the Chargers are succeeding this year and why Rivers is having the best season of his career.
BDC: New England fans are accustomed to hating the teams the Patriots are playing at this point in the season, like the Steelers, Ravens, or Broncos. Can you give Patriots fans any reasons to dislike this Chargers team? Do any of the Chargers talk a lot of trash, or have any of them made bold predictions about this game?
TA: Rivers is probably your main target if you want to dislike the Chargers. He’s a fiery competitor, sort of like Brady. The way that he complains after not getting calls, or the way that he’ll go after a ref – if there’s a play downfield where he feels like his receiver didn’t get a pass interference call and he should have, the dude will sprint 20 yards to accost an official for not throwing the flag. He whines a little bit.
Keep doing you, Phil. pic.twitter.com/WzFQQ1rX6c
— Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) January 8, 2019
Last week, Matthew Judon, edge rusher on the Ravens, hit him twice on swing passes out of the backfield. On the second one, Judon injured himself. Rivers and Judon had a history going back to the Dec. 22 game, where they were yelling at each other, even in the handshake line after the game. When Judon got hurt, Rivers said, ‘That’s what you get.’ He’s a fiery individual, and he talks a lot of trash, so I could see Patriots fans getting a little riled up about that. If you think about it, he’s a little more overt about it, but I don’t think that separates him and Brady too much.
BDC: If you were on a desert island, and you needed one Charger to help you get to safety, who would you want? Someone likeable, resourceful, and calculated who does the little things that no one really notices.
TA: Adrian Phillips. He’s their nickel linebacker-slash-safety, and he makes this entire defense run. When the Chargers used seven defensive backs against the Ravens, some players hadn’t been on the field too much before, like backup safety Rayshawn Jenkins, and Adrian Phillips was the one on the sideline with the iPad, saying, ‘Rayshawn, don’t get off your assignment too much.’ The dude picks out little details. He picks out everything that could go wrong. They used him like that when he was at Texas. He’s pretty chill. I can get along with him, he’s kind of a laidback guy. I know for a fact that, if we’re packing a suitcase before we’re going on a trip and I ask him if we’ve got everything packed, if we get stuck on a desert island, that dude will have us as best prepared as we could possibly be.
BDC: Let’s say this game is 23-17 Chargers, and Tom Brady has the ball with two minutes and change deep in Patriots territory. Do you think the Chargers will be able to get that stop, or do you see it ending badly for them? Can the defense make the necessary plays when it has to?
TA: That’s a great question, because I think Brady has been in that situation so many times. The only time you can really say that it didn’t work out was last year in the Super Bowl. I think this is immovable object meets unstoppable force territory. Brady has done this so many years, and he’s proven time and again to be that guy. Except for the Super Bowl last year, this is what he’s made his living on. But if you go back through the Chargers’ year this year, in Week 8, they had a last-second stop in London against Tennessee. They stopped a 2-point conversion in the end zone to win the game. Two weeks later, after their bye week, in Seattle, they tipped a would-be-game-tying touchdown pass in the end zone to win. They’ve made so many defensive stops. They had one defensive lapse this year against Denver, when they allowed a big last-second drive. The Chargers this year have proven that they can stop teams in big situations like that, but they haven’t proven that they can stop anybody like Brady.
"He's as good as anybody we've seen all year."
— Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) January 8, 2019
BDC: And finally, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, how do you see this game unfolding? What’s your official score prediction, and what do you think will ultimately be the X-factor?
TA: I have the Patriots winning 27-24. I think the X-factor is going to be how the Chargers defend Brady. I know he started dissecting film immediately after the Chargers won on Sunday night. The Chargers defense is multiple – they have so many players who can play so many different positions, they’re flexible, and Adrian Phillips is the embodiment of that – but Brady is going to have too much time to prepare. I think he’s going to have too much time in the pocket. The Chargers have great pass rushing with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, but the Patriots have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Those two brains are going to figure out a way to get it done over the Chargers.