The 2007 Patriots are remembered as one of the most dominant teams in NFL history, and rightfully so. It marked the beginning of the Age of the Quarterback, with Tom Brady setting passing and scoring records, with his ever so reliable go to receiver Randy Moss doing the same. The NFL had never seen an offense quite like New England’s and it was an unstoppable freight train until one fateful night in Glendale, Arizona.
There were a few scares throughout the season, especially on a frigid Monday night against the Ravens in Baltimore where old friend Rex Ryan called a panicked timeout before a key Patriots fourth down where Baltimore stopped Brady on one of his patented QB sneaks. Of course, Brady would make Ryan pay and led the Patriots to a first down the next play.
For the most part, however, most of the games played that 2007 season were a breeze for the undefeated Pats. The playoffs also looked to be an easy few weeks for New England on their way to another Super Bowl. That is, until the then San Diego Chargers came to town for the AFC Championship game.
Philip Rivers famously played on a torn ACL, but that Chargers team had some unbelievable talent that included LaDanian Tomlinson in his prime. The game came down to the fourth quarter, where Tom Brady and the Patriots narrowly escaped an injured Philip Rivers at home to advance to their fourth Super Bowl in seven years. Rivers, in an interview with CBS after the Chargers win over Baltimore on Sunday, was asked what comes to mind when he thinks of the Patriots. His response: “2007.”
There were three different teams that the Patriots could have matched up with in the Divisional Round on January 13th. One would think the higher the seed the worse the match-up, however, this was not the case this season. The general feeling across the NFL is New England drawing the Chargers was the worst possible scenario.
The Texans, who were walloped at home by Indianapolis, posed a potential threat with running quarterback Deshaun Watson. Although, New England managed fine against him Week 1. Fans were hoping Houston would squeak out a win and come into Foxboro for a replication of the 2016 playoffs.
Going into the weekend, Baltimore seemed like a match-up nightmare for New England; a mobile quarterback with a solid run game and stout defense seemed like a recipe for another 2009 debacle. Baltimore also poses the toughest challenge for the Patriots in Foxboro every time they come to town in January. All that was tossed off a cliff, however, when Lamar Jackson and the Ravens looked like a peewee football team wearing Bird Box blindfolds against a star-studded Chargers D.
So, the lowest seed the Patriots could have played, the fifth ranked Chargers, come into Foxboro with a 13-5 record, never having lost outside of Los Angeles this season (8-1 on the road with a loss against the Rams in L.A.). The man who got them a date with New England, Philip Rivers, comes into this game extremely motivated to not repeat 2007. He is very much in the mix for NFL MVP, having led the Chargers to their best season since 2009 when they went 13-3. Although, even though Rivers poses a great challenge to a revamped Patriots defense, there are multiple other factors to consider in this game.
Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa
The number one concern Patriots fans should have are the defensive ends of Los Angeles. Pass rushers have been able to almost single-handedly beat the Patriots in playoff games (2007 and 2011 Super Bowl, 2015 Broncos, 2017 Eagles). The images of Brandon Graham strip sacking Tom Brady in last year’s Super Bowl, or Von Miller wrecking havoc in Denver, will remain in New England infamy for years to come. And Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram possess the potential to have a similar impact this Sunday. Both Bosa and Ingram have had phenomenal seasons, even though Bosa was out for half the season. If you watched the Chargers Ravens game, then you know Melvin Ingram’s name. He is a wrecking ball on the line of scrimmage, and Joe Thuney will have his hands full with him.
In order to effectively counteract the Chargers pass rush, New England needs to establish inside runs with Sony Michel and run their bread and butter in the passing game, which is slants and screens. Quick passes and medium to long runs will be all New England needs to successfully drive down the field on a regular basis. Of course, the Patriots receivers will have their skills challenged with L.A. cornerbacks Shareece Wright and Pro Bowler Casey Hayward. Getting separation on quick passes will enable Brady to effectively dictate the passing game, which leads to wins.
Keenan Allen vs. Stephon Gilmore
On the other side of the ball, the Chargers have playmakers on offense all over the field. Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and of course Philip Rivers. The New England cornerbacks will have a constant test, both on the outside and in the slot, with the variety of talent Los Angeles has at receiver. Keenan Allen is a multiple time pro-bowler and former All-Pro and will most likely be shadowed all afternoon by recently named All-Pro corner Stephon Gilmore. This tactic has been a staple of New England’s defense, especially come playoff time. Antonio Brown had Malcolm Butler on him exclusively in the 2016 AFC Championship, with safety help over the top. Expect something similar to be in use with the Chargers top receiver, but Gilmore can shut down Allen by himself.
The Chargers have an evenly balanced offense, with running back Melvin Gordon usually getting around 20-25 touches per game. He did come out of the game last Sunday with an MCL injury, but the Chargers expect him to play. New England needs to shut down the run game, whether it’s Gordon back there or not. Setting the edge has been an issue all year long for the Patriots defense, something that needs adjusting before Sunday. As for the passing attack, Rivers likes to stay in the medium yardage range for the most part. He will occasionally take shots downfield, but 10-15 yards downfield is where he lives. New England’s corners and linebackers will need to be stuck like glue on receivers like Mike Williams.
Some other notes:
- There is a very good chance of snow at game time. Coming from California, this could hinder some Chargers players.
- Los Angeles has been one of the worst teams in the league at covering running backs in the passing game. They’ve given up over 900 yards to backs this season. Look for New England to exploit this with James White and Rex Burkhead with creative screens and backfield routes.
- The Patriots come into this game never having lost at home this season (8-0). The Chargers have never lost outside of Los Angeles. Something will have to give.
- Philip Rivers has never beaten a Tom Brady led team (0-7).
- Chargers stud interior defensive lineman Brandon Mebane was out last Sunday against the Ravens due to complications with his daughter. It is unclear if he will play this Sunday.
- Chargers recently activated tight end Hunter Henry from PUP. It is unclear if he will play or how he will be used.
This has the potential to be one of the great New England playoff games of recent memory. The storylines are there (Rivers v. Brady, the weather) and the Patriots and Chargers both have things to exploit from each other defense and offense. This game will ultimately come down to which team can prepare better. That goes for the players and the coaches, as both sides coordinators will need to be on their A game.
If you have any comments or questions, feel free to message me on Twitter @JoeyCarr9.