We are finally here! The Patriots’ first playoff game is rapidly approaching and let’s face it; the Patriots got the toughest matchup possible of their potential three opponents. The Chargers were the strongest of the teams and proved it all year with a 12-4 record, wins on the road against high-level teams (Chiefs, Seahawks, and Steelers). They also have a very talented roster from top to bottom. Despite all that, the Patriots still have a number of things going for them as they do every year, starting with the fact they are at home again.
With all that being said here are some key factors coming up as the Patriots aim to earn a place in their eighth straight AFC Championship.
1.) Let it Snow?
After the game last Sunday, the forecast for Sunday at Gillette was snow with bitter cold. Finally a snow game, right?! Unfortunately Sunday will not bring snow, which would make the game very interesting as Tom Brady has done very well in his career in the snow (everyone remember when they beat the Titans 59-0 in the snow?) As of Wednesday night the forecast predicts light wind, no precipitation, but frigid cold with a high of just 29 degrees and a low of 16. Of course temperatures will be closer to 29 considering the kickoff is in the middle of the day, but either way the Chargers will be facing another game in the cold, it just will not include any harsh wind chill or snow.
2.) Key strengths could define game
Going into the game the Chargers and Patriots both have very defined strengths that could prove pivotal for each team’s hopes of advancing to the AFC Championship.
On the Chargers side they have a ferocious pass rush that could give the Patriots real issues. The Chargers feature two absolute studs with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram that can easily handle most tackles if single blocked. Normally that would be a huge issue, but what makes it even more concerning is the fact that Marcus Cannon and Trent Brown have both had their fair share of struggles in pass protection as the season went advanced. If the Chargers can wreak havoc on Tom Brady with their edge rushers and force the Patriots to keep extra blockers in, that gives the Chargers the option to shade toward certain receivers or double them. This game will be huge for Marcus Cannon and Trent Brown in pass protection.
For the Patriots, their strength of recently has been the play of their secondary over the last part of the season especially with the emergence of J.C. Jackson opposite of recently selected All-Pro Stephon Gilmore. Throw in the depth of having Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones, as well as Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon at safety and this team is loaded in the secondary. If their secondary plays as well as they have been, which is a tough ask considering how big and physical Keenan Allen and Mike Williams especially are, it will give Brian Flores more freedom if he feels a desire to blitz, but it will also allow the pass rushers much more time to get after Philip Rivers.
3.) Will Gronk be back to his old self?
This is one thing that no one really knows the answer to, but it is a huge factor. One thing should be clear to people though, the Patriots can win a Super Bowl without Rob Gronkowski being his old self, but it will just be much more challenging for them to do so. If Gronk can be even half of his old self then Tom Brady will get a huge lift in the passing game in one of the greatest game-changers the game has ever seen at that position.
One note that needs to be mentioned though is that even if Gronk does look better, a big if, he may not make a huge impact either way as Gronk is likely to be checked by Chargers star safety Derwin James at least some of the time. Gronk has had some time off though and that could help him produce a few plays that will have some people flashing back to recent years.
4.) Patriots must get running backs involved
In past games the Patriots have attacked Gus Bradley’s defense with running backs and have had a lot of success doing so. One would think the Patriots game plan would heavily involve said running backs considering that fact. Throw in the fact that the more James White touches the ball, the more success the Patriots have had. However I do not mean just in the passing game as I think Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead between the tackles could have an important role in the game to keep the defense and specifically the pass rush honest. If the Patriots can run the ball with success it will help keep Brady upright, and if Brady can hit his backs in space, they canpotentially create some big plays if they can break some tackles.
5.) Will we see any trick plays?
In the past playoff games the Patriots have featured a trick play or two if they have been trailing or if they feel like the opportunity is too good to pass up. Sunday could be another chance to take advantage of those very plays. It would not be surprising to see a double pass or some other gadget play that we have not seen all year. After all, this is the time to break it out considering it is win or go home. The one thing that is pretty surely off the table is anything involving Tom Brady catching a pass considering how it has been reported that Brady has been dealing with a nagging knee injury and hasn’t been at full strength.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Chargers 20
The Chargers have a really good team and it is unfortunate at 12-4 they have to play an extra game and play on the road through basically the whole playoffs (they could play in Los Angeles if the Colts win on Sunday). They have a very deep, talented roster and have building blocks in all the right places. If the Patriots want to move on they will have to be sharp and build off their performances the last two weeks, albeit against lesser teams with even less motivation. However, betting against Brady and Belichick at home in the playoffs is something you should do at your own peril as they haven’t lost a home playoff game since 2012 and have lost just three times at home since 2001. Brady will show precision and the running game will make the difference late.
-David Albiani is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @david_albiani