The New England Patriots have completed 17 weeks of the 2018 NFL season and have been rewarded with a home game on Sunday afternoon in the AFC Divisional Playoff round. They will face the Los Angeles Chargers who traveled to Baltimore last week and held on to defeat the Ravens 23-17.
From a off-season retirement rumors, a suspension of four games for wide receiver Julian Edelman, to a 1-2 start including a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars (in an “AFC Championship Game Rematch”) and a loss to former defensive coordinator, it did not look like the Patriots–after losing Super Bowl 52 to the Eagles and Seth Wickersham stories about the professional marriage of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick eroding–would be in this position.
However, a six-game winning streak (including outlasting the then undefeated Kansas City Chiefs) seemed to quell those fears. However, the Patriots then lost three of five–including an ugly performance on the road against Tennessee and back-to-back in December on the road. That included the “Miami Miracle” on a multi-lateral touchdown to the Dolphins and an ugly performance including an atrocious Tom Brady interception.
The season ended on an upswing by outlasting an impotent Buffalo Bills offense 24-12 in Tom Brady’s ugliest game of the season and a good old-fashioned stomping of the Jets 38-3 to make everyone believe everything was all good heading into the playoffs. As the number two seed, the Patriots need to root for the six seed Indianapolis Colts to upset the top seed Kansas City Chiefs to host an AFC Championship Game–if they can get past the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Patriots finished first in the AFC East for the tenth consecutive season and the 16th of 18 seasons since Tom Brady took over as starting quarterback in 2001. This was also the 16th consecutive season with double-digit wins for the Patriots–tying the 49ers who were from the pre-free agency and salary cap era.
This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in the greater Boston area and and on WPRI Channel 12 in southeastern Massachusetts and the greater Providence area. Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with Tony Romo as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson and Jay Feely will work from the sidelines.
Each week in the NFL, the outcome comes down to who wins the key match-ups. The New England Patriots will need to win their match-ups on defense this week.Locally, the New England Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the six states in New England, New York and Florida and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback and local talk radio personality Scott Zolak adding color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on defense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
The New England defense finished 2018 strong holding the potent Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense to just 17 points, the hapless Buffalo Bills’ offense to just 12 points and the only Buffalo touchdown coming with just over a minute to play and the Patriots ahead by three scores, and the New York Jets managed just a field goal in week 17.
The New England defense had been solid much of the second-half of the season. The defense held their opponents to 17 or fewer points in five of their last six games following their bye week. The defense was temporarily in the top ten in the NFL in points allowed before giving up 34 points to Tennessee in week ten and 34 to Miami in week 14.
The Patriots finished the season seventh in points allowed although the defense was 21st in total yards allowed. The defense was 22nd in passing yards allowed and 11th in rushing yards allowed. However, they were 29th in the NFL in yards per attempt allowing teams to rush for an average of 4.9 yards per attempt.
The defense was excellent on third downs in November and December and finished the season 16th in the league in third down defense allowing their opponents to convert 38.6% of the time (76 of 197). The New England defense was 16th in the red zone allowing teams to score 58.7% of the time (27 touchdowns on 46 trips).
How do the Patriots plan to continue their defensive momentum against the Chargers and veteran Philip Rivers after a strong finish to the 2018 season?
TAKE AWAY THE BIG PLAYS:
The Los Angeles Chargers’ offense finished sixth in the NFL in points scored in 2018 and 11th in total yards. The balance attack was tenth in passing yards and 15th in rushing yards. The offense was fifth in Scoring Percentage scoring on 42.5% of their drives.
Quarterback Philip Rivers led the way with his 68.3% completion percentage, 4,308 yards passing and 32 touchdowns against just a dozen interceptions for a 105.5 quarterback rating. Troubling for the Chargers, however, is how Rivers struggled down the stretch. After completing 72% of his passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns and no picks for a 115.4 quarterback rating against Pittsburgh in week 13, his performance tailed off dramatically in December and January.
Rivers had quarterback ratings of 99.8 vs Cincinnati, 89.0 vs Kansas City, 51.7 vs Baltimore, 60.4 vs Denver, and then 80.2 last week in the win over Baltimore in the Wild Card round. Four of Rivers lowest passing yards for 2018 occurred in those five weeks. In those five games he threw just five touchdowns and had six interceptions and was sacked 12 times.
Rivers struggled with running back Melvin Gordon injured and returning and rushing for just 41, 42, and 40 yards in his three games back. Without having to sell out on defense to stop the run and bite on play-action, opposing secondaries were able to key on the talented wide receivers and focus on the running backs as receivers coming out of the backfield.
While much of the sports talk both nationally and locally assuming the Patriots will put All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore on Keenan Allen and his 97 receptions for 1,196 yards. That is not an assumption that should be made. Gilmore is at his best on the outside and the Chargers love to deploy Allen from the slot in three wide receiver sets. In addition, he may not be the most dangerous receiver.
Looking inside the numbers, the Chargers perform best when they are able to get their pair of big, athletic young wide receivers involved in the passing game. 2017 first round draft pick Mike Williams is tall and long, fast and strong. Ditto for the long-armed Tyrell Williams. Those two like to line up outside and use their size and speed to abuse smaller cornerbacks.
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The Patriots will likely use Gilmore on Mike Williams and let rookie J.C. Jackson face-off against Tyrell Williams. The Chargers are 6-1 in games which Mike Williams catches a touchdown and 7-0 in games that Tyrell Williams has 40 yards or more receiving. The Patriots need to focus on this duo and keep them from hurting them with big plays outside the numbers.
Look for Jason McCourty to draw Keenan Allen in the slot in McCourty’s first playoff game. Safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty will have to be on their game with crafty veteran tight end Antonio Gates still a third-down threat and Hunter Henry–who was removed from injured reserve this week–a wild card.
The Chargers had 13 touchdowns of 25 or more yards with six of those coming from Tyrell and Mike Williams. Another three are from Melvin Gordon. Patriots fans will remember Gordon’s 78 yard touchdown run from last season in the first quarter of that game.The Patriots must be vigilant to stop these big plays.
A big help would be getting a pass rush to get in Philip Rivers’ face and force him into some bad throws. Rivers and Chargers were stingy with turnovers early in the season but had ten in their last five games. Veterans Russell Okung, Mike Pouncey and Michael Schofield anchor the offensive line. Second-year players guard Dan Feeney and right tackle Sam Tevi are the two potential weak links of the offensive line.
Getting pressure from Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise (a late addition to the injury report) is a must for the Patriots. Inside pressure from Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler would be welcome as well as Rivers–like Tom Brady–is a pure pocket passer who does not like pressure in his face. Look for blitzes from Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy.
There is one other thing the Patriots’ defense must do against the Chargers’ offense this week:
CONTROL THE RUNNING BACKS:
Like the Patriots, the Chargers need to run the football effectively in order to get their offense on track. As the Patriots have made a habit of getting on track with Sony Michel and the other running backs establishing a running game to control tempo and help the defense, the Chargers like to use the same game plan with Melvin Gordon and Austin Eckler.
Part of the much discussed 7-1 road record for the Chargers has been their ability to run the ball effectively in a hostile environment. With cold and wind forecast for Foxboro on Sunday, the Chargers are likely going to try and get the ground game going first.
However, with the knee injury to Gordon and Eckler more of a third down back and not a between-the-tackles grinder, the running game has been stuck in neutral. The Chargers have not rushed for 120 or more yards in a game since November. Add in a passing offense that had 301 total yards passing in two games combined against Baltimore and just 160 yards passing versus Denver in week 17, and the weak rushing attack becomes a liability.
New England has been ambivalent about the running game at times–they dared teams to run the ball and gladly gave up yards with six or seven defensive backs on the field knowing that the opponents were not disciplined enough on offense to keep with it. This week, the Chargers want to run the football and the Patriots need a plan to keep the running backs from letting the Chargers be balanced on offense.
Danny Shelton has improved his run defense since being a healthy scratch for a few weeks and Malcom Brown has also stepped-up down the stretch since a rocky start to 2018. Keep an eye on linebacker Elandon Roberts as he can be a downhill threat in shooting gaps and stopping running backs in the backfield.
Trey Flowers and the other defensive ends will need to stay disciplined setting the edge in the running game. That big run by Gordon last year was a Cassius Marsh breakdown on the edge and resulted in “Tattoo Magoo” getting his ticket punched for a one-way trip out of Foxboro.
New England will be tested early by the Chargers. If the Patriots can win their one-on-one battles up-front they should be able to control the line of scrimmage and make the Chargers be unbalanced.
The game plan on defense is simple for the Patriots: keep Keenan Allen and the two Williams from making big plays against a secondary that has played well–especially in Foxboro. In addition, the Chargers will try to test the Patriots’ suspect rushing defense and linebackers in coverage early and often to control the clock. If the Patriots can limit big plays and make the Chargers one-dimensional, their defensive resurgence should continue.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01