After a wild and extremely entertaining weekend of playoff football, the Wildcard round is finally behind us and only eight teams remain in the journey to the Lombardi Trophy. On Saturday the Colts defeated the Texans to narrow down our possible opponent to the winner of the Chargers vs Ravens.
The teams played the next day, and after a lopsided contest controlled by the Chargers for most of the game Los Angeles was able to hold off a miracle comeback by Baltimore’s rookie Quarterback Lamar Jackson to win 23-17. This ensured that the Patriots would be hosting the Chargers in the divisional round.
The Chargers are strong on all sides of the ball. They finished the regular season 12-4 but didn’t earn a first-round bye due to being in the same division as the 12-4 Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots are the only team to go undefeated at home this season, but that won’t mean much against a Chargers team who has yet to lose on the road this year. These two elite teams should make for an unforgettable sixty minutes of great football on Sunday. Let’s take a look at the key players that makes this Chargers team Super Bowl contenders:
Philip Rivers, Quarterback- The Chargers are lead by 8-time Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers. He has been on the team since 2004 and took over the offense in 2006 and has been at the helm since. He has had a tremendous career to this point as he’s totaled 374 touchdowns, 54,656 yards and 178 interceptions. The one thing that goes against his Hall of Fame possibility is his lack of success in the playoffs. He is 5-5 overall and has never reached a Super Bowl. As he continues to age and his window for a championship closes, you have to figure Rivers wants success this year more than ever before.
Melvin Gordon, Running Back- When the Chargers chose Gordon with the 15th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft they hoped he’d be their franchise running back and star of their backfield; and their wishes came true. Gordon has proven himself as one of the premier running backs in the NFL. The Wisconsin product has put up at least 1,300 total yards and 12 touchdowns in the last three season. His pass catching ability and elusiveness in the open field makes him very difficult to contain. With that being said, Gordon has been dealing with an MCL sprain in both of his knees but expects to be a full-go on Sunday. It will be interesting to see how effective he will be as he deals with those injuries.
Keenan Allen, Wide Receiver- Allen has emerged as one of the top receivers in the game after posting back-to-back seasons in which he made the Pro Bowl. He’s a huge reason for the success in the passing game for this offense and is the “go-to” guy for Philip Rivers. In 2015 he went down with a lacerated kidney and in 2016 a torn ACL ended his season early. He has dealt with a fair share of injuries but has battled back to become one of the league’s top wideouts.
Hunter Henry, Tight End- Henry has missed all of the 2018 season after tearing his ACL back in May of last year. However Sunday could be Henry’s 2018 debut as he was supposed to play against the Ravens last week but never did. He is off the injury report and should be good to go. There was a bunch of hype surrounding Henry entering the season after his first two season were a great success. If Henry does play he will be a massive upgrade over longtime veteran tight end Antonio Gates who appears much slower and bigger than his past self.
Melvin Ingram, Defensive End- Ingram is a versatile player who has a knack for getting after opposing quarterbacks. The former first-round pick has been with the Chargers since 2012 and has been a major part of their defense since. Over the last four seasons Ingram has totaled 35 sacks and 164 combined tackles. He was selected for his second consecutive Pro Bowl this season after being a leader on the 8th ranked defense in the league. Ingram’s dominance was on great display during the Wildcard Weekend matchup against the Ravens in which he led the team in tackles with 7, had 2 sacks, and 2 quarterback hits.
Casey Hayward, Cornerback- After spending his first 4 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, Casey Hayward joined the Chargers in 2016 and made an instant impact when he lead the league in interceptions in that same season with seven. Hayward made the Pro Bowl in 2016 and 2017 and has solidified himself as an elite cornerback. His incredible ball skills have allowed him to breakup 50 passes over the last 3 seasons. Hayward should be in coverage against Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan all Sunday long.
Joey Bosa, Defensive End- Bosa was selected with the 3rd overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft after a stellar career at Ohio State. The former Buckeye proved his worthiness of a top selection after recording 10.5 sacks and winning Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2016. He followed with another year the following season when he had 12.5 sacks and made his first Pro Bowl. Bosa only has 5.5 sacks this season as he dealt with a foot injury for majority of the year. Nonetheless, Bosa is a freak athlete that can disrupt an opposing quarterbacks timing and make it difficult to stay in the pocket for long.
Derwin James, Strong Safety- The Chargers took James in first round of the 2018 NFL Draft and have to be ecstatic about the player he’s proven to be; James has a serious shot at winning Defensive Rookie of the Year as he recorded 3 interceptions, 13 passes defended, 3.5 sacks, and 105 combined tackles. His magnificent statistics earned him a spot in the Pro Bowl this season. James is an all-around special talent that can cover extremely well, hits hard, and has great vision to see the field and how plays develop. He is a player on the verge of stardom and after another season or so will be known as one of the best safeties in the league.
The Patriots are going to have to bring their “A-game” when Sunday rolls around. The Chargers are full of talent on all sides of the ball and have the formula to win in Foxborough; a strong running game and the ability to get after the quarterback. With that being said, expect New England’s running backs to have a huge impact on the game. They should look to use Sony Michel to keep the chains moving and clock running, which then sets up the big play action pass plays that gains chunk yardage. The Patriots are 9-0 when they run over 100 yards this season. James White and Rex Burkhead will be needed out of the backfield too as in last years matchup Brady was 14 of 15 for 163 yards when targeting running backs. The Chargers have allowed 973 receiving yards to running backs this year, which is the second most in the NFL.
Sunday’s game has the chance to be remembered as one of the best games this season, but that opinion will only stand true if the Patriots get the job done.
-Adam Pasquale, Jr. is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @adampasqualejr