The word ‘decline’ (courtesy of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary) is defined as a “trend toward an inferior state or weaker condition.” In the world of professional sports, it is commonly used to describe an ailing or aging athlete in the (ahem) ‘twilight’ of his/her career. It can even be used to describe the fate of an entire team, or even a franchise. As the New England Patriots prepare to host the Los Angeles Chargers in the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs on Sunday, that word is being used quite often. And, it is being directed towards Foxboro, Massachusetts’ hometown team.
We have all heard the chatter. There is a seemingly endless parade of ‘hot take analysts’ that continue to predict the demise of the Pats and their 41-year old quarterback, Tom Brady. Most notably, these ‘expert opinions’ come from those that are pathetically-wrought with jealousy over New England’s success. Recently, we have even seen a former NFL player (whose envy and biased ‘analysis’ damages his credibility more than it enhances it) embark on a ten-minute tirade, criticizing the Pats star quarterback for studying and watching film.
Really, we are now lambasting a quarterback for telling the world that he watches film?
Ask yourself, ‘Why is that?’
Perhaps when considering the source of said nonsensical diatribe, you will hopefully discover that the source warrants no credible consideration.
However, it is playoff-time in Foxboro, and this year seems a bit different, for fans and foes alike. For so many years, New England’s march through the divisional round has seemed to be more of a formality than a challenge. While some are content to attribute this type of success to the Pats playing inferior opponents, those that are not blinded by ‘agenda’ will realize that the Patriots have yet to actually play a team of Pastene “Kitchen Ready” Tomato cans. Their opponents are living, breathing NFL Football teams. If they are in the playoffs, it means they are capable. It is true that some opponents have provided an easier path than others. However, the Pats have also had some hard-fought battles on divisional-round weekend. To discredit that fact does no justice to either the Patriots, or their opponents.
Fast forward to January 2019. The Pats are about to take on the Los Angeles Chargers at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, January 13 at 1:00pm ET. Make no mistake about it, the Chargers are coming to play. Bolts’ head coach Anthony Lynn’s squad is far from being a collection of vegetable cans. Once again, this is going to be tough.
For a team that so many are content to dismiss as being in decline, the epitaph of the Patriots dynasty is already being prepared. It would be a great sociological experiment to see just how many social media posts on this subject are already ‘saved and queued-up’ for Sunday. The ‘haters’ just waiting with giddy anticipation for the opportunity for their fingers to hit ‘send.” It should be a safe bet to say it is more than a few.
‘Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead?’ Not so fast…
The first step toward a successful playoff run is to smartly ignore the wishful thinking of those in the national spotlight who clamor for the chance to declare that New England is ready to be put to pasture. The Patriots are not ready to ride off into the sunset, just yet. In fact, they might be right where they need to be for a ‘re-charge.’ (pun intended)
Before the eye-rolls and ‘homer’ dismissals begin, statistics do show that this Patriots team aptly compares to one in which a playoff run culminated in a Super Bowl championship. Which team, you ask? The 2001 New England Patriots, the first of the Patriots dynasty.
Like their 2001 counterparts, the Patriots enter the postseason as the number two seed in the AFC. Statistically, there are also some notable similarities. According to Football Outsiders (and reiterated by Bill Barnwell of ESPN) the 2018 Patriots are 0.82 standard deviations over the mean on offense. That is exactly equal to that of the 2001 Patriots. Translation…they are still pretty good. The Patriots are not exactly anemic on offense. Their quarterback is not ‘noodle-arming’ ‘knuckleballs’ out there. Yes, there is a much greater emphasis on running the football and creating play-action opportunities in the short passing game. Does that mean decline? No, it is simply adapting to their strengths. While it might be statistically lower than in years past, it is still more formidable than their critics would have you believe.
On the opposite side of the ball, the much-maligned 2018 Patriots defense is also worthy of comparison to the 2001 unit. The 2018 Patriots defense finished the season ranked seventh in overall defense, as opposed to the 2001 squad ranking sixth. The 2001 team actually ranked lower in defensive takeaways (eighth), while this year’s club ranked fifth. In each postseason win, the Patriots were facing an offense (Raiders, Steelers and Rams) that was deemed too potent for the defense to stop. Each time, the Patriots were the last team standing. It resulted in a Super Bowl championship. Could this be a harbinger of things to come? Only time will tell.
One Day at a Time
While comparisons to the past can be fun and intriguing, the games are played on the field by the squads of the present. The Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick are universally renowned for focusing on their next opponent. It is that single-minded approach that has made the Patriots the more well-prepared team in matchups of this type on more than one occasion.
Therefore, in the interest of the ‘Patriot Way,” New England’s path to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta has only one focus, for now…the Los Angeles Chargers.
After beating the Ravens 23-17 on Sunday in Baltimore, the Chargers earned themselves a trip to Foxboro for this Sunday’s showdown with the Pats. The winner advances to the AFC Championship Game the following Sunday.
The Bolts went 12-4 in the regular season, which was tied for the best record in the AFC and was just one game back of the best record in the NFL. With the exception of a 22-10 loss to Baltimore on 12/22, they were nearly perfect after Thanksgiving. The Bolts went 5-1 down the stretch, and arrive in Foxboro playing some of their best football of the season.
On paper, these two teams are as evenly matched as they come. Offensively, the Patriots rank fourth in points per game (27.3), while the Chargers rank seventh (26.8). On defense, the margin is even more…shall we say…’razor thin.’ As previously stated, the Patriots defense enters this game as the seventh-ranked defense in the NFL. They average a total of 20.3 points against. The Chargers are right on their heels, averaging 20.6 points against. Needless to say, a nail biter in Foxboro on Sunday would not be a major surprise.
Plan of Action: Defend the Wall
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is known for developing a game plan to take away his team’s opponents’ greatest strength. On defense, this usually means neutralizing the opposing team’s most potent offensive player. With the Chargers, this is not as easy as it appears. The Chargers can beat you through the air. They can also beat you on the ground. Let’s examine:
Quarterback Philip Rivers is playing as well as he ever has. He ranks eighth in the NFL in passing yards, third in yards per attempt, tied for sixth in touchdown passes, and fifth in passer rating. Rivers’ arsenal of offensive weapons is equally as impressive. The Chargers employ a trio of receivers who can pick up huge chunks of yardage very quickly. These types of chunk plays have often spelled difficulty for the Patriots defense. Receivers Tyrel Williams and Mike Williams each averaged over 15 yards per catch. Keenan Allen, averaging 12.3 yards per reception, is more than capable in that area, as well. Tight end Hunter Henry (who has yet to play a down this season) was activated earlier in the week. When healthy, Henry is typically a favorite target of Rivers. It can be safely assumed that Henry will be far from his usual self on Sunday. However, he has the savvy within the Bolts’ offense to be a stellar decoy, a blocking threat, or to seek an open look in the red zone.
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On the ground, Los Angeles is equally dangerous. Running back Melvin Gordon has arguably been the Bolts’ best player in 2018. When considering the bevy of talent they have on offense, that sums up Gordon’s value quite nicely. He finished 2018 ranked 17th in the NFL with 885 rushing yards, and was one of only 10 backs to average at least five yards per carry (stat cred: Michael Hurley, CBS Sports Boston.). The Chargers’ ‘other’ back, Austin Ekeler rushed for 554 yards on the ground this year, as well.
However, if there is an area for the Patriots defense to exploit, it might be to neutralize LA’s running game. While Gordon’s play-making abilities are more than impressive, it should be noted that he has been dealing with injuries since late-November. He missed three games in December with a knee injury, and he suffered an ankle injury in Week 16 that has continue to slow his production. In last week’s wild card matchup with the Ravens, Gordon hurt his left knee on a run near the goal line. While he did return to that game, and is fully expected to play on Sunday, he might not be 100 percent.
As a result, the Patriots front seven might look to clog the middle and prevent the Bolts’ offensive line from creating holes through which Gordon, or Ekeler, may run. On a day in which weather could be a factor (early forecasts call for significant snow in the Foxboro area on Sunday afternoon), Rivers might find it a bit more difficult to find an open receiver for big gains. The Patriots defensive tackles Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton might be in for a big day on Sunday. To help stop this ‘lightning storm,’ they will have to bring their ‘A’ game. If they can do so, it will free up the Pats secondary to set their coverage, and avoid playing catch-up.
‘Everything We Got” on Offense
As previously stated, the Chargers boast one of the most talented defenses in the NFL. Bolts’ Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley has been able to coach his squad to adapt to their strengths as well as any unit in the league. As has been a stalwart of the Patriots philosophy, the Chargers defense has become quite adept at limiting what their opponent does best.
Defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, who accounted for three sacks in Sunday’s win over the Ravens, are one of the most fearsome pass-rushing duos in the game today. Ingram led the Chargers with 7.5 sacks in the regular season, and possesses a spin move that causes offensive linemen more than a few restless nights. Bosa struggled with injuries in 2018. However, he was still able to collect 5.5 sacks in only seven games. As if two prolific pass-rushers were not enough, rookie Uchenna Nwosu has emerged as a force. His strip-sack in Sunday’s game against the Ravens was a key play in helping to secure the win for Los Angeles. Their ability to pressure the quarterback is something for which Tom Brady and the Patriots offensive line will need to be sharply prepared.
In the secondary, the Chargers are also formidable. Rookie safety Derwin James continues to play impressive football. While a very good traditional safety, James has shown the versatility to allow him to play a linebacker-type role in six-and-seven defensive back sets. The task of containing Pats tight end Rob Gronkowski might fall on James, and he might just be up to that task. At corner, Desmond King has been a great tackler in open space and picks up offensive reads fairly quickly. King will likely matchup with a speedy Pats receiver such as Cordarrelle Patterson, Philip Dorsett or Chris Hogan.
In order for Tom Brady and the Patriots offense to be productive against this Chargers’ defense, they need to establish the run game fairly quickly. Both Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead will likely see the ball quite often on Sunday. With linebackers Denzel Perryman, Jatavis Brown, and defensive tackle Corey Liuget all sidelined on injured reserve, this might be the best target area for New England’s offense. Should weather be a factor, the Patriots running game might just take center stage. At the very least, a potent running game might open some play action opportunities for Brady and his receivers in the short passing game. Should this come to fruition, look for Brady to utilize James White and Julian Edelman in these situations. Lastly, Cordarrelle Patterson could have a significant impact in the return game. Obtaining good field position to begin drives will be a key to victory for both teams. If unreliable weather conditions prevent Chargers kicker Michael Badgley from kicking the ball deep, Patterson might have a significant impact on this contest.
While the Patriots might be hoping that Sunday’s divisional round tilt provides the ‘charge’ they need to kickstart a march to Atlanta, they remain singularly focused on the Chargers. Despite external temptation to do so, Belichick, Brady and company will not look past the Bolts. The Patriots are too disciplined to do so. The Chargers are far too good to be considered an afterthought. Sunday’s game promises to be one of the more difficult divisional round matchups that New England has had in recent memory. Both teams will be ready, and neither one will have even one eye on the next potential matchup.
That being said, the Patriots are back in the playoffs. One might say they are ‘still here.’ There is no ‘decline.’ Rather, the Pats have slightly changed their method of transportation. While the goal is to get from ‘here’ (a divisional-round home playoff game) to there (Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta), the most efficient way to achieve it is to take one game at a time. That’s how the Patriots will approach it. That is how their potential path has been presented here. The Patriots are on to Los Angeles. To win, it will take ‘everything they got.’ That is their sole focus.
The rest is still unwritten.
-Mike D’Abate is the Managing Editor of Full Press Patriots and is a National Columnist for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots and the NFL. Follow him on Twitter @mdabateFPC