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AFC Divisional Round preview: Chargers-Patriots

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The Backstory

A Divisional Round party at Gillette Stadium has become an annual occurrence, and the New England Patriots have been nearly unbeatable in their own building this decade. Can Philip Rivers and the upstart Los Angeles Chargers end Tom Brady's home playoff dominance?

Bill Belichick's squad has won eight straight postseason home games against AFC opponents (last home loss to AFC opponent was 2012 AFC Championship vs. Baltimore). The Patriots have lost only one postseason game to an AFC opponent since 2014, going 7-1 (the lone defeat came at Denver in the 2015 AFC Championship Game).

On the flip side, the Chargers have been road warriors this season. With last week's wild-card win, Rivers' bunch became just the eighth team in the Super Bowl era to win nine-plus games in a season (including playoffs) outside of their home stadium. The Chargers are 8-1 on the road (including playoffs) and added a "home" win at Wembley Stadium in London. Their only road loss came in Week 3 to the L.A. Rams. The Chargers are undefeated this season when they travel by plane.

The Patriots have a decided historical advantage over the perennially disappointing Chargers.

Bill Belichick is 6-1 against coaches in their first postseason -- his only loss came in Super Bowl LII to Doug Pederson. Anthony Lynn won his first playoff game as a coach last week. The Chargers have never won multiple road games in a single postseason.

Brady's history over Rivers looms large. TB12 and the Patriots defeated Rivers and the Chargers, 21-12, in the 2007 AFC Championship in their only playoff battle en route to a Super Bowl appearance. Brady is 7-0 versus Rivers in his career (including playoffs) -- Rivers' lone career win against New England came in 2008 when Matt Cassel started at QB while Brady was out with a knee injury (Chargers won, 30-10, at home).

The Chargers became the eighth team since 2002 (divisional realignment) to win 12-plus games and not win the division. None of the previous seven such teams made the Super Bowl -- only one of the previous seven such teams made a Conference Championship (2013 49ers).

History, however, isn't playing Sunday. The Chargers boast a more well-rounded roster and enough firepower to derail the Patriots on the road. However, the GOAT had a week to rest his 41-year-old body, New England got healthier down the stretch and will have a boisterous Foxboro crowd at its back.

Under Pressure

Patriots offensive line: The book on Tom Brady has been out for a long time: Rattle him with pressure up the gut. Easier said than done.

The Pats O-line has been good this season protecting TB12, ranking No. 1 in pass blocking by Football Outsiders. Per Next Gen Stats, Brady finished the season with the lowest pressure rate in the league (17.4 percent), most of which can be attributed to the Patriots allowing the lowest pressure rate to pass rushers aligned on the edge this season -- 9.6 (New Orleans finished second at 11.0). Brady's quick trigger -- 2.61 seconds to release was the fifth-fastest release time among qualified passers in 2018 -- and short passing attack aid the low-pressure rate.

The Chargers, however, boast two of the best pass rushers in the entire NFL in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Ingram was the best player on the field in the entire NFL last week, destroying the Ravens' game plan. Since his return to the starting lineup in Week 12, Bosa ranks second among 62 edge defenders with 100-plus pass rushes a 3.7 percent sack rate (including playoffs) -- 6.5 sacks (t-most in NFL) on 177 pass rushes since Week 12.

Tackles Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon will have his hands full on the edge, but guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney are enjoying the best years of their careers. Expect the Chargers to move Ingram around, particularly to the inside to try to push the pocket into Brady's lap.

The best attribute of the L.A. defense is they get pressure without blitzing. If the Chargers can rush four and drop seven into coverage, taking away Brady's outlets, they could slow the Pats pass attack.

Philip Rivers: It's legacy-pressure for Rivers. The Chargers quarterback has the most career completions (4,518), pass yards (54,656), and pass TD (374) of any QB to never make a Super Bowl appearance. He'll have to go through Brady to have a shot at ending that dubious record. Rivers is 5-5 in the playoffs in his career, while Brady is 27-10. Rivers is 1-4 in his career in the Divisional Round -- the lone win coming against Peyton Manning's Colts in 2007.

Rivers has more than a history problem, however. With running back Melvin Gordon clearly less than 100-percent, the Chargers balanced offense faltered. Being put in disadvantageous situations, Rivers and the passing game have gone quiet. Last week against Baltimore, Rivers averaged just 5.0 yards per pass and 160 total passing yards with no touchdowns. That won't get it done at Gillette.

It wasn't just a one-week struggle either. In Rivers' last five games, including playoffs, he's averaged a 65 percent completion percentage, 210.0 yards per game, 6.6 yards per attempt, 4-6 TD-INT ratio and a 76.3 passer rating. Those are closer to Case Keenum numbers than Drew Brees numbers.

Expect the Patriots to blitz often to supplement their pass rush, which is lacking outside of Trey Flowers, to take advantage of a mediocre Chargers offensive line and put pressure on Rivers. The New England defense had the second-lowest sack rate (4.7 percent) in the NFL and ranked 23rd in QB pressure rate (25.5 percent). Rivers could excel if the Pats don't get pressure. He generated a 115.9 passer rating when not under pressure, ranking fifth among 33 qualifying QBs during the regular season.

Matchup to Watch

Patriots running backs vs. Chargers defensive diversity: Much was made of the Chargers using seven defensive backs against the Ravens last weekend. While we won't likely get that setup quite as much from Gus Bradley's defense this week, we should expect to see a bevy of six-DB looks given L.A.'s lack of linebacker options. The defensive back-heavy operation worked against an unsuspecting Ravens team that never adjusted. Can it work against Belichick, Brady and Josh McDaniels? Look for the Patriots to use a cornucopia of big-package looks. New England used the second-highest rate of 21 Personnel (2 RB, 1 TE) in the NFL (27.9 percent) and fourth-highest rate of 22 Personnel (2 RB, 2 TE) (6.1 percent).

The Patriots offense has looked its best this season when employing a power-running attack with rookie Sony Michel, who averaged 71.6 rush YPG this season (second among all NFL rookies). With the Chargers lack of linebacker depth, New England's game plan will likely include a lot of heavy-package runs early. In the passing game, the running backs should also play a big role. James White had 751 receiving yards this season (second among all NFL RBs). White could get loose against an L.A. defense that ranked 23rd in the NFL covering running backs in the passing game, per Football Outsiders' metrics.

Prediction

The Chargers enter Sunday's matchup boasting the more complete roster, but facing Tom Brady at home after a week of rest is a different beast. The Patriots' defense will make enough plays to force L.A. to settle for field goals and swipe a close, low-scoring affair at home.

Patriots 23, Chargers 20

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