Now in his 15th season in the NFL, Philip Rivers has started 218 straight games, recorded over 55000 passing yards and almost 400 touchdowns. He has made the Pro Bowl eight times, beaten basically every quarterback record in Chargers history and even seen them move cities. However, there is one thing he has never been able to do – beat Tom Brady. In eight total games versus the Patriots, Rivers’ only win against them came in 2008, when Matt Cassel replaced an injured Brady. And I don’t want to make this all about the quarterbacks, but these two guys have been the constants in that matchup for more than a decade now and so I thought the title makes a lot of sense. The Bolts finished the 2018 season tied for the best record in the AFC at 12-4, but with the Chiefs holding tie-breakers over them, they entered the postseason as a Wildcard team and already had to go on the road to beat the Ravens in Baltimore. Now they once again travel up to New England, where the Patriots are being questioned once again but still have one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time under center. What might be different this time around? Rivers has the best team surrounding him since they went to the conference championship game over ten years ago. Will he finally slay the dragon?
Like I just mentioned, Rivers is 0-7 all-time versus Tom Brady-led Patriot teams since entering the league. By now we all know the story of the 2004 draft, when the Chargers initially drafted Eli Manning but were forced to trade him to New York because Manning had already made it clear he wouldn’t play for San Diego. What a lot of people don’t know is the fact that in addition to the N.C. State signal-caller, the Chargers also received a couple of draft picks which they drafted future Pro Bowlers Shawne Merriman and Nate Kaeding with. With Drew Brees and for the first year also Doug Flutie still on the roster, Rivers was limited to mop-up duties his first two years in the league until the final game of the 2005 season. In that week 17 matchup against the Broncos, Brees dislocated his shoulder and almost saw his career come to a sudden end. The upcoming offseason the organization made the decision to let Brees walk and give Rivers his chance as a third-year man. While Drew won a Super Bowl shortly after and became a legend in New Orleans, Philip has put up prolific numbers in his 13 years as a starter. However, he has never made it to the big game and a lot of times it has been the Patriots that were in their way.
Expectations were high for the Chargers’ new man under center because of the talent he had around him in ‘06. While Marty Schottenheimer managed Rivers’ amount of attempts early on, a matchup with the reigning Super Bowl champion Steelers, who set up a gameplan revolving around stopping the run and making the young signal-caller beat them, kickstarted a run for this team. San Diego won 12 of their last 13 games, including several thrilling comeback victories, while scoring 20+ in every single one of them. They entered the playoffs as the number one overall seed with a 14-2 record and an NFL-best 11 Pro Bowlers, including Rivers himself and league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson. The Bolts hosted the Patriots in the Divisional Round as favorites and with a perfect home record. While the Chargers outgained their opponents in rushing and total yards, four big turnovers, sacks on key third and fourth downs, a stupid unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and ultimately a missed kick to potentially tie the game ended their run. Schottenheimer was fired a few weeks later due to a dysfunctional relationship with the general manager and a couple of incidents. With him left the rest of the coaching staff.
The following year the Chargers returned most of their roster but brought in Norv Turner as their new head man. With the offensive system being installed a few years prior by Turner that led to a strong three-year run, the focus shifted to the defensive side of the ball. While San Diego couldn’t quite match their previous record, they earned a Wildcard berth thanks to a top five offense and defense. After trailing 6-0 at halftime at Tennessee, the Chargers scored 17 unanswered in the second half, giving the franchise its first playoff win since 1995. That booked them a trip to Indianapolis, were they had to go up against the reigning champion Colts. In a game that involved seven lead changes, an early exit for Tomlinson and an injury to Rivers on a go-ahead touchdown throw, backup quarterback Billy Volek led the team down the field for a sneak that would put them up for good. Peyton Manning had two more shots at it, but was stopped both times by the Charger D. That set up a rematch at Foxborough in the AFC Championship game. With Tomlinson leaving the field early on once again and Rivers playing through a torn ACL, the team didn’t have enough to overcome an undefeated Patriots squad, which would go on to lose to the Giants in the Super Bowl. However, San Diego kept it close, with a score of 14-12 entering the fourth quarter.
In 2008 Rivers recorded his first 4000-yard season and just got his team to the postseason at 8-8, but they lost to the Steelers in the second round. He had another strong campaign following that while leading his team to a 13-3 record and the second seed in the AFC, but they were eliminated by the Jets on a day where their kicker missed three field goals. 2010 marked the first year in which the team missed the playoffs with Rivers under center. They let go of Tomlinson in the off-season and had one of the worst special team units in NFL history, allowing four blocked punts and four return touchdowns. That also included a missed field goal against the Patriots in the middle of the season, after they had committed a false start, which ultimately cost them the division title.
Including 2010, Rivers and his Chargers missed the playoffs in seven of their next eight seasons. During that stretch the quarterback made six Pro Bowls, led the NFL in passing yards and passer rating in different years and thrown an average of almost 30 touchdowns a season. However, we also saw him lead the league with 121 interceptions through those eight years and his only playoff victory came over the Bengals, who have not won a postseason game since 1990 themselves. Last year in their inaugural season in Los Angeles, the team came really close to advancing, having won six of their final seven games, but just lost out due to some tiebreakers. A lot of that and several other losses have come due to missed field goal attempts late in game. Under current head coach Anthony Lynn, the Chargers have missed a combined 25 field goal and PAT attempts and they have now moved on to their sixth kicker in two years. While you can point to late-season losses to the Chiefs and other factors, their kicking woes have been a big reason for that playoff drought. Last year it also was due to a close loss in New England, when the Chargers went up early on a long Melvin Gordon TD run but ended things with a Rivers interception as the clock ran out.
So you can see the Chargers missed their opportunities early in Rivers’ career due to the Patriots standing in their way and a couple of last-second losses ended up keeping them out of the postseason in recent years. Why do I believe this season’s version can finally get past their biggest challenge?
Now that we’ve talked about the history of this very one-sided rivalry, let’s get into this season. I picked the Chargers as my Super Bowl representative from the AFC side simply due to all the talent they have on their roster. I already was a big fan of all the playmakers on their offense and saw the potential to get to the quarterback with the top duo of edge rushers combined with an excellent cornerback trio. I also already saw the potential they had in blowout victories over the Bills, Cowboys and Redskins during their streak last year, but I thought that week 16 loss to the Chiefs and seeing the Bills get that final Wildcard spot would send them into the offseason with a little more motivation than usually. They convinced me with what they did from February to August, when they signed recently released center Mike Pouncey and put together an excellent draft class, which includes Pro Bowl safety Derwin James, outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, who just got the game-clinching strip-sack against the Ravens, and other rookies, who have played meaningful snaps.
After losing to the Chiefs in week one once again and then falling to the Rams two weeks later, the Chargers sat there at 1-2. Following that start their only loss over the next eleven weeks came by one point on a last-second field goal to the Broncos. They defeated the Chargers in London, won against the 12th man in Seattle, came back at Heinz Field after being down 23-7 at halftime and most importantly they finally beat Kansas City again after nine straight losses. They have led furious comebacks, shown dominance against weaker competition and already proven they can learn from their mistakes when they suffocated the Ravens for about 50 minutes after a bad loss to them in week 16. While the Chargers have dealt with some injuries to the interior of their defensive line and the linebacker level, key contributors in Keenan Allen, Melvin Gordon and Joey Bosa only now are getting back to full strength. At 12-4 they actually entered the playoffs with a better record than the second-seeded Patriots and I would argue that win at Baltimore was an important one for their confidence going forward.
The Patriots on the other hand have had a rather unusual road to the Divisional Round. While they once again earned a first-round bye, this team has looked vulnerable at times that we’re not used to by them. While we are familiar with some struggles in September (see their loss at Detroit), a 34-10 beatdown at Tennessee in mid-November and a loss to Pittsburgh a week before Christmas, or in general for that matter, are somewhat irregular. Tom Brady has made some unusual mistakes in peculiar spots and not looked as sharp as we are used to from the reigning MVP. With that being said, they outscored the Jets and Bills 62-15 the final two weeks of the season and were a Rob Gronkowski tackle on Kenyan Drake on the “Miami Miracle” away from earning the AFC’s top seed once again.
As usual, New England is outscoring the opposition by an average of seven points, being number four in points scored on offense and seventh in points allowed defensively. They dominated a 3-0 Dolphins team to the beat of 38-0 until the final seconds of the game, were up by at least two touchdowns throughout the game versus the Colts, outscored a red-hot Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs squad 43-40, won at Chicago, beat Aaron Rodgers and held the Vikings to just 90 yards in the second half while forcing three turnovers. The Patriots have dealt with season-ending injuries to their starting rookie left tackle, all of their backs have been banged up at different points of the year, they saw their most talented pass-catcher in Josh Gordon step away from football again and been out of the race for a first-round bye for a few weeks. Yet, once again here they are at home as favorites in the Divisional Round and they are not scared by anybody.
Why the Chargers can win:
As you can somewhat take away from my quick recap of the Chargers 2018 season, they have been very good on the road. In fact they are perfect outside the state of California, with their only road loss coming at the hands of a Rams team that won their first eight games, plus they won on a different continent which officially was a home game for them. Obviously having to win at Gillette Stadium in the playoffs is a different beast, but L.A. already won at the loudest places around the NFL – Arrowhead and CenturyLink Field – with the Chiefs and Seattle losing just one combined home game to teams not named the Chargers. They also became the first team ever to come back from 14+ points at Heinz Field, after the Steelers had been 220-0-2 in situations like that. Even if you want to say there were some lucky plays in that game, I think there is no doubt that this Chargers squad is battle-tested on the road. But let’s look more at the schematics and personnel matchups across the board.
Even though the Patriots run a lot of bear-fronts on base downs to stop the run, there are ways to be effective in the ground game. There’s a reason they are tied for third-worst with 4.9 yards allowed per carry. The Steelers in particular used some creative running schemes and New England tried some alignments in their front that I wasn’t sure how they expected to defend against the offense. Mike Pouncey has the agility to be used as a puller and operate in space just like his brother and I also like how the Chargers use simple cross-blocks to change things up a little. There might be no other team focused more on keeping their outside contain than the Patriots, but something that sets Melvin Gordon apart from most NFL backs is that burst he has to get around the edge. I think he is capable of doing that a couple of times, which will open up the interior later on in the game. I also saw the Steelers be able to wall off or reach the edge defenders with their tight-ends and therefore put a lot of pressure on the corners to force the play inside, which is hard for those guys on the perimeter when they also have to cover the wideout in man. Moreover, the Chargers can spread the field and force their opponents out of those looks. Snow is expected in Foxborough on Sunday and while not a lot of backs like to run in that weather, Melvin Gordon once broke the NCAA’s all-time rushing record in a blizzard at Wisconsin.
Keenan Allen is a matchup problem in the slot because of his sudden movement off the line and how he creates separation early on in his routes. However, don’t think for a second that Belichick and his staff will leave a linebacker on him like some other teams have done. It also will be interesting to see if Allen can eat on those dig and post routes as the single receiver versus one high safety, which basically puts him one-on-one with the corner, which could very easily be Stephon Gilmore in those situations. Unlike most years where the Patriots wanted to leave their best corner one-on-one with the number two receiver and roll the coverage towards the go-to guy, Gilmore actually has taken the challenge of trying to shut down they opposing’s top receiver. The one thing those Patriot corners have struggled with at times were those big-bodied wideouts who can win on 50-50 jump balls and back-shoulder throws – enter Mike Williams.
Due to those one-on-one matchups on the outside, when running trips formations you can create a natural rub on that single-receiver side by letting that guy run a quick-in and then making the inside defender go over the top against running backs on swing routes, who then have a one-on-one with someone trying to sprint out to the flats and there’s a lot of room if you can win that matchup in space. With all the focus on details the Patriots DBs are so triggered by some keys, such as pick-play looks from a stacked-up receiver set. You can take advantage of the secondary defender trying to jump the route on those and I remember JuJu Schmith-Schuster starting inside underneath his teammate and then coming back out on a whip-route, which left him wide open for an easy gain. You have to find little gimmicks to take advantage of how well these defenders are schooled by what they see. The Pats D has also been vulnerable to vertical concepts where they make safeties commit one way and the Chargers have the speed at the skill positions to stress them with that.
The Chargers love those jet and fly sweeps especially with Travis Benjamin. I have seen them flip it to him, use him as a dummy or even the out-let pass. Off that they run run zone towards that side to use the defensive flow against them to open up lanes inside and the opposite way to freeze the backside defenders. They have also used throwback screens off that action. Benjamin is also pretty dangerous on double-moves and creates space underneath on deeper routes for more possession-type receiver like Tyrell Williams in the slot. In addition to that, I think their multiple tight-end sets could be more effective with Hunter Henry back from IR and depending on his condition, he might give them more of a vertical presence at that spot. Antonio Gates might be like 60 years old by now, but he can still win on those crafty stutter routes and understands how to take advantage of defenders leaning one way. And finally as far as matchups go, Los Angeles uses their backs out of the backfield a lot as outlets on swing, flat and check routes with vertical concepts over the top, making tackling in space a crucial point of the game. Austin Ekeler in particular can be a problem for defenses – so his health will play a big role.
The Chargers have been very motion-heavy for stretches and they use several different splits and stacks by their receivers. They have the versatility to play a multitude of formations – they can spread you out with empty sets or line up multiple tight-ends and backs. That will be one of their biggest advantages if they can keep the Pats off balance. The key for me will be to not give away play-calls with their personnel groupings, such as a couple of tight-ends actually being rarely used in the route concepts but rather as extra protectors, and adjust throughout the game because we all know how those Patriots teams pick up on your tendencies. Bill Belichick is the master of situational football and understanding what you like to do. So the Chargers will have to change things up a little by how they use their personnel. This team can attack the opposition in every which way not only because they have the weapons, but Rivers trusts all his pass-catchers and he has the ability to anticipate and throw guys open with ball-placement.
The Chargers front-seven might be pretty small, but some of those guys near the line of scrimmage are not afraid to throw their bodies around. I’ve seen cornerback Michael Davis take on pulling offensive linemen and Derwin James only knows how to play downhill. I was really impressed by their pursuit in how they all rally to the ball in the run game in a couple of matchups I watched. That entire unit has a ton of team speed, which not only serves them well in the outside run game, but also to keep dumpoffs and underneath stuff to minimal gains.
L.A. plays a ton of single-high safety defenses with the old cover-three press-bail coverages defensive coordinator Gus Bradley brought over from Seattle. While that scheme brings some concerns and I will get to that in a bit, the one guy who could punish defenses for that space between the perimeter and the safety in the middle of the field was Josh Gordon. Without him I still have to see who can make plays on deep-in and post routes. Right now their receiving corp seems to be pretty underwhelming. I know that Tom Brady and the offensive coaching staff have turned a bunch of no-names into star in that system, but they are just not as dynamic as usual. In particular Rob Gronkowski doesn’t nearly run the same way he did a couple of years ago. His movements look very robotic and Derwin James is someone that I think was made to cover him. Plus they have a really good duo of cornerbacks and some guys they can put in to take away cheap catch-and-run plays to James White and the other Patriots backs.
While Brady is one of the best at deciphering defensive looks and then adjusting to post-game coverage rolls, he is a creature of habit and you can somewhat jump routes, such as Gronk on hook-routes over the middle if you trust your middle safety to defend the post. There are some staples to that McDaniels New England offense that you can focus on if you understand the timing and which routes can be part of that concept, once you read the primary one. Another way to slow down that quick-trigger passing game of the Patriots is by disguising coverages. In third-and-long situations the Chargers like to put a lot of people around line of scrimmage, such as double A-gap pressure looks, and then drop out of it to give their down-linemen one-on-one opportunities. They have the personnel to disguise pressure up front and then play man underneath with the remaining defender taking the tight-end plus two deep safeties. That’s how Derwin James got a pick earlier this year versus Pittsburgh, carrying the TE down the seams. With James and those other safeties on the back-end they also have the speed to stay in a two-high alignment basically until the ball is snapped and then drop one of those lined up deep down over the middle and erase any cheap gains on crossing routes that way.
Most importantly however – the Chargers defense can get home with four people. That sounds a bit like a cliché, but I really think these guys have the horses to do it. The Bolts can put their top pass rushers over guards to provide interior pressure – which is the one thing Brady really struggles. Joey Bosa could already be the most technically refined pass-rusher in the league and Melvin Ingram might have just had the best game of anybody in the league all year long. The coaches moved him all over the formation, giving him a two-way go a lot of times and when they matched him up against the weak-link of the offensive line it was a wrap. L.A. recorded seven sacks versus Baltimore in the Wildcard Round, despite their gameplan revolving about running the ball. This pass rush is most dangerous when they can put opponents in obvious passing situations and they can bring out Uchenna Nwosu and Isaac Rochell to go with Bosa and Ingram.
Even though I just praised the Chargers offense, it has been rather predictable in recent weeks after showing more versatility earlier in the year. New England is at their best against stationary West Coast offenses, so that they can decipher common pass concepts and drop into their spots. You can not go into this game and think just running the plays you are most comfortable with will get it done. The Chargers like those shot-plays with two-man routes, where the keep two tight-ends and a back in protection on. The problem with those is that when neither one of the receivers is open, Rivers is trapped and that’s where you see most of their sacks occur. The Patriots already showed against the Vikings that they can double or bracket both wideouts in situations where they feel comfortable with the seven people they have inside to stop the run and when they chart the down-and-distances you tend to draw those plays up, they will not be there and you might have to count on Rivers to avoid the rush.
While I do like the speed among that receiving crew, solely relying on vertical concepts to push the ball down the field will not work up there in Boston, because they have seen those way too many times and they don’t shy away from putting six or seven defensive backs on the field either to be able to carry seam routes down the field. Another thing that brain-trust up in New England will pick up on is the fact the Chargers use Austin Ekeler as their primary third-down back. Once Bill and Brian Flores figure out their protection schemes, they will start blitzing those big linebackers and beat the 195-pound back up. I love that guy’s toughness, but he is sitting in there against 260-pound Dont’a Hightower with a full head of steam. Those guys at the second level understand cadences and how to perfectly time their blitzes as well.
New England has played a lot more man-coverage this season than we are used to from them, in particular because they trust their two corners Stephon Gilmore and rookie J.C. Jackson to hold up. This is one of the teams that can play the Chargers one-on-one pretty much across the field. Unlike a lot of boundary guys, Gilmore travels with his man into the slot and they can bring in a Jason McCourty as an extra veteran presence to match up with some guys. They have faith in Devin McCourty to cover ground, which allows their coverage underneath to be more aggressive, and they can play a ton of combo-coverages, which can be a little muddy pre-snap.
The biggest challenge for the Chargers’ offensive attack however will be having an all-around gameplan that includes potential adjustments they have to make. There is no team that picks up on trends better and changes up their defenses more to stop the opposition like the Patriots. You can watch as much tape as you want and study their tendencies, but you can never be totally sure how they will try to counter you come gameday and they always seem to have an alternative they can go to after halftime. It will be imperative to bring versatility in your play-calling depending personnel groupings and formations to be successful in this game.
The Patriots have dealt with injuries to their backfield at times, but when rookie Sony Michel has been healthy this offense has been built around the power run game out of the I-formation. James Develin on the field for about 36 percent of their offensive snaps. Belichick has picked up on the trend of defenses going smaller and smaller and he has said “I will bring in my 255-pound fullback and bury those guys at the second level”. New England runs gap schemes as well as inside zone. Sony is a hard-nosed runner, who has a feel for how to take advantage of double-teams and the burst to make linebackers pay for overcommitting one way. What has also hurt a lot of teams is the way Sony cuts back the run and goes straight North and South as they wash down the backside of the run play. At times the Patriots also trap D-tackles with their fullback. Unlike the Ravens, who were more built around stressing the edges with Lamar Jackson and putting pressure on multiple defenders to stay true to their assignments, the Patriots actually blow some people off the line and take it to you with their ground attack. Why is this such a concern for me? Here’s the size of the Chargers interior D-linemen: Damion Square – 293 pounds, Darius Philon – 298 and Justin Jones – 309. Those guys won’t match up well against a road-grading run-blocker like guard Shaq Mason. Brandon Mebane is expected to return to the team after a devastating private situation. He has been their best run-stuffer up front, but his status is still up in the air. That lack of heavy players shows up in goal-line packages, which they won’t be able to keep the Patriots out of the end-zone with once they get inside the Chargers’ five-yard line. I have also seen them be very vulnerable to power plays especially towards the weak-side in their 3-1 alignments by their D-tackles.
I already mentioned that the Seattle-scheme has basic flaws, like every defense does. A lot of times you can chip away for short completions if the Chargers play soft zone-coverages and if you think you can peel off from your underneath responsibility, you better believe Brady has no problem checking it down. The Patriots will test your discipline and if you don’t stay true to your assignments you will get shredded. I think of that 60+ yard touchdown to Chris Hogan versus the Steelers, when the boundary corner carried his receiver on the post route instead of passing it off and forgot about his deep third responsibility, which left Hogan all by himself on the deep crosser. So you can not make those mistakes of getting caught up in those clearout concepts and allow the wide open throws. Unfortunately exactly that has been the number one concern with that Seattle-type scheme Gus Bradley was a forefather of and this year especially teams that run that type of defense have been exposed by guys like Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan and yes you guessed it – Josh McDaniels. This also includes drag routes combined with clearing out the opposite side and other cheap completions.
When the Chargers do switch things up and line up two high safeties that void in the intermediate level can get way too big because they don’t have anybody sinking deeper once crossers are passed on. The Patriots will definitely try to widen the safeties in that alignment and then hit them over the middle. It will be crucial for those safeties to stay centered and not allow easy windows by turning their hips completely one way. New England doesn’t really have the explosiveness on the perimeter to scare you, but if you overcommit against them, they have a quarterback who knows how to exploit you.
What I found from my film study is that bunch-sets have created a lot problems for the Chargers. Unlike most teams they don’t press the player in the middle and then split the bunch, meaning the defenders stay with the receiver coming their way. Instead they keep their linebacker inside and have the corner play with strong outside leverage. That allows easy short-yardage gains on slip screens and pick-plays. Pittsburgh used their big-bodied tight-ends as those front guys successfully and it won’t get much better with Gronk lining up in that spot, because he is a monster after all. That leaves a lot of pressure on Desmond King at nickel to make up for resulting issues and also creates problems on spacing concepts because the nickel might run out into the flats, but with the corner playing the deep third it’s all up to the linebacker to decide on whether he jumps on that hitch-route right along their alignment or the hook over the middle. Similar problems occur with two-receiver stacks where they just play it to passive and the Chargers really seem have problems understanding how route concepts can work together when receivers are stacked up. Not having a young linebacker in Jatavis Brown, who operates well in space won’t help them either.
I truly believe Philip Rivers has the best team around since ‘06 to ‘09 and I could argue this squad is even better. They have two exceptional pass-rushers with inside-out versatility, cover-guys who match up well with the Patriots pass-catchers and Gus Bradley isn’t too proud or stubborn to go away from this Seattle-style defense. You need to disguise coverages and come up with drops into areas you know they want to attack to make Brady pad the ball once or twice and allow your rush to get to him. If you want to win this game, you have to make him uncomfortable and force him to move off his spot. On offense the Chargers have the most well-balanced receiving corp in the league and an excellent trio of running backs now. The offensive line looked pretty good versus the Ravens’ pass-rush and I don’t think New England has a singular more dangerous guy to get create pressure. Something that gets overlooked a lot is that the Chargers finally have a kicker in Michael Badgley, who they can trust to convert drives into points and not faulter in big moments.
With that being said, their offense has been a little too predictable for my taste lately. They will have to be more creative and their coaching staff on both sides of the ball will already have had to grind their way through film. This will be their hardest test to understand tendencies and anticipate play-calls while not falling into the trap of giving your own strategies away. Listening to Melvin Ingram’s post-game comments saying “ASAP – any squad any place” is a sign of the supreme confidence this team has. I think they believe they can get it done and they have already displayed a ton of resiliency.