Welcome to Season 7, Episode 18 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
Seems like the Patriots and Chargers should have more of a tangled history than they do, They’re both refugees of the AFL, established in 1960 and moving to the NFL in the merger before the 1970 season. They’ve both had some unforgettable teams — though they never won a Super Bowl, the Chargers had the electrifying Air Coryell era in the late ’70s and early ’80s, while the Patriots have had . . . well, roughly the last 20 years of excellence. They’ve played 38 times in their history, and yet Sunday’s meeting (1:05 p.m., CBS, Jim Nantz and Tony Romo on the call) will be just their fourth playoff meeting, and third of the Brady/Belichick era. They need a little more history, and Sunday, the hunch is that these two potent teams will make some we won’t soon forget.
Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this one started . . .
Three players I’ll be watching not named Tom Brady
Sony Michel: Chosen with the 31st overall pick in the most recent draft, Michael was the first running back selected by the Patriots in the first round since Laurence Maroney in 2006. While Michel still has elements of his game that require development — he caught just seven passes this season — I’d imagine most Patriots fans are comfortable in saying that he’ll have a better career than Maroney, who played just 49 regular season games over five seasons in the NFL. Maroney was a bust, in part due to a shoulder injury that turned him into a more passive runner. But there is one way in which Patriots fans should hope Michel mirrors him — by performing with excellence in a playoff game against the Chargers. It seems largely forgotten, probably because we think of the 2007 Patriots as the most prolific passing offense we’ll ever witness, but Maroney was perhaps the star of the teams’ last playoff meeting, in that season’s AFC Championship game. Maroney ran for 122 yards on 25 carries in the Patriots’ grind-it-out 21-12 victory, their 18th straight that season. It was actually his second straight 122-yard game — he also put up the same total against Jacksonville in the divisional round. The Patriots don’t necessarily need 100 yards from Michel on Sunday, but they do need him to get the important yards — especially in short-yardage situations — to extend drives against the Chargers’ ninth-ranked run defense. This will probably be the only time in his career that we will ever want him to remind us of Maroney.
James White: Maybe — hopefully — this is what the Patriots have been waiting for to start maximizing their most versatile and reliable offensive weapon again. White had a truly excellent season, finishing the regular season with 425 rushing yards, 751 receiving yards, and 12 total touchdowns. He set career highs for rushing attempts (94) and receptions (87), which may be one reason why the Patriots seemed to de-emphasize him over the final month of the season; he didn’t have more than 10 touches in any of the last four games. His importance against the Chargers is obvious. Brady is going to need to get rid of the ball in a hurry to counteract the Chargers’ fierce pass rush, led by Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. And Los Angeles’s linebackers are reputed to be underwhelming in pass coverage. This lines up to be a big day for White, who needs to have the ball in his hands at least 15 times Sunday.
Dont’a Hightower: Actually, you could put Kyle Van Noy or Elandon Roberts or, I don’t know, Albert McClellan and Ramon Humber here if you want. Because what I’ll be watching is not the performance of any specific member of this group, but how they fare as a whole, especially against the run. The Chargers have a very capable running game. They ranked eighth in the league this season at 117.1 yards per game. Bell cow back Melvin Gordon ran for 885 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He has banged-up knees but sounds like he’ll be good to go. If he’s not, there’s a heck of a backup plan in Austin Ekeler, who ran for 552 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. I think we’d be right to still be wary of the Patriots’ run defense, which ranked 11th in the league at 112.7 yards per game, but was gashed by some running backs who are something less than household names not all that long ago (including old friend Brandon Bolden in the weird loss to Miami). The Patriots gave up a combined 347 rushing yards to the Steelers and Dolphins in the Week 14 and 15 losses. While they appeared to have remedied that in the final two regular season games against the Bills and Jets, it was the Bills and Jets, you know? The Chargers would be very wise to test that Patriots run defense time and again early to see whether the repairs hold up.
Grievance of the week
Not so much a grievance here, but more of a bewilderment. I’m always surprised to hear from Patriots fans who don’t like Josh McDaniels, and I hear from them fairly often. Sure, sometimes he gets too cute — he should be lambasted for infinity and beyond for sending Tom Brady on a pass route against the Titans earlier this season. But there’s a lot of evidence through the years that he’s really good at his job. Sure, it’s Brady that deserves the vast majority of the credit for orchestrating the Patriots offense all these years. That’s so obvious it probably doesn’t need to be said. But McDaniels deserves genuine praise for much that he has done — the approach to the 10-point fourth-quarter comeback in the Super Bowl win over the Seahawks, the patience and poise in pulling off the 25-point comeback against the Falcons, the creativity in the rally from two touchdowns down against the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game in the 2014 season, and much smaller well-designed victories along the way as well. And he rarely gets that praise. Heck, he was the one who called the 2-point direct snap to Kevin Faulk that tied the Patriots-Chargers divisional round matchup late in the fourth quarter in 2007. He may seem young, but he’s been doing this, and well, a long time, and usually in perfect synch with Brady. Patriots fans should be glad he’s still here.
Oh, and a much more trivial grievance. Stop telling me how handsome Kliff Kingsbury is. Weak jaw, man. Weak jaw.
Prediction, or this is not the end, my friend
Should the Patriots lose Sunday, I suppose we should be prepared to be inundated with this-is-the-end-of-an-era for the next several days (if not weeks and months) afterward. The national media — and more than a few local types — have been itching to write the Patriots obit for years. A loss would be the end of something significant — specifically, the amazing eight-year streak of reaching the AFC Championship game. But suggesting that this would be the last wheeze of a dying dynasty would be a little much. It certainly appears as though Bill Belichick and Brady will be back next season, and while it will be Brady’s age 42 season, that coach/player combo remains one to envy. There will be changes, though. I suspect we’re in the final weekends of Rob Gronkowski’s Patriots career, and that’s sad. It must also be noted that Stephen Gostkowski, the Patriots’ kicker for the last 13 seasons, is also a free agent. He’s been an excellent Patriot — would you ever want to try to fill Adam Vinatieri’s cleats? — and yet one without a lot of love for the fan base, in part because he lacks a defining momnent. Arguably, the biggest kick of his career came against the Chargers in their 2006 divisional round matchup, when his 31-yard field goal with 1 minute and 10 seconds left gave the Patriots the go-ahead points in a 24-21 win. I don’t believe Gostkowski will be back next year. He’s already the highest-paid kicker in the league, and he’s a year older (34) than Vinatieri was when the Patriots let him depart. But if this is Gostkowski’s final season as a Patriot, he’s not leaving without that defining moment. It comes Sunday afternoon, in the final minute, with the Patriots trailing. And it will put off those end-of-the-dynasty stories for another week, and perhaps even longer. Patriots 31, Chargers 30.