The Divisional Round of the 2019 AFC is set, and there’s no shortage of intrigue among the four teams still battling for the conference crown. We already talked about how Saturday’s game between the Colts and Chiefs will be better than you expect. And it’ll get a worthy follow up when the Patriots host the Chargers on Sunday afternoon.
That matchup will pit two of the league’s most venerable veterans against each other when this guy:
squares off against this one:
It’s been more than a decade since Tom Brady and Philip Rivers met in the postseason, and the Los Angeles quarterback won’t just be looking for revenge — he’ll be looking for the chance to secure his legacy. While Brady battles toward his ninth Super Bowl appearance, Rivers is still looking for his first. And 2019 might be his best, last chance to do it.
Why? Because ...
The Patriots are more mortal than usual
New England’s been the AFC’s juggernaut after winning three of the last four conference crowns, and though Bill Belichick’s team earned a bye through Wild Card Weekend this winter, these Patriots aren’t the same death-eaters of years past. While the 11-win club won its 10th straight AFC East title this year, the Pats have been vulnerable both from a talent and coaching standpoint in 2018.
There have been several cracks that have spread through the franchise’s normally spotless facade. Belichick may have cost his team home field advantage in the playoffs by forcing Rob Gronkowski to play safety for a non-Hail Mary play we now know as the Miami Miracle. Tom Brady seemingly lost his magic when a pair of potential game-winning drives stalled out deep in Pittsburgh territory in a Week 15 loss. Bad teams like the Jaguars and Lions beat New England by double digits.
Most importantly, the Patriots haven’t had a strong enough offense to overcome their defensive deficiencies:
And that defense will be put to the test against a potent Los Angeles team. Rivers played MVP-caliber football thanks to an improved offensive line and a healthy receiving corps. He’s bolstered by a potent running game led by rising star Melvin Gordon. Though the veteran quarterback has slumped lately — he threw six interceptions in his final three regular season games and threw for only 160 yards in his Wild Card win over the Ravens — a date against the Patriots has been a cure-all for several different passers the past two years.
But New England has been invincible at home, especially against good teams
The Patriots are undefeated at Gillette Stadium this season and haven’t lost at home since Oct. 1, 2017. They haven’t lost a postseason game in New England since 2013’s AFC title game. There’s no sign of championship fatigue in Massachusetts — Pats fans remain as rowdy, loud, and belligerent as ever, and they’ll be thirsty to re-ignite their rivalry with the Chargers.
In fact, the Patriots have been pretty dang good against the NFL’s contenders in 2018. New England went 4-0 against playoff teams this fall, beating the Chiefs, Colts, Texans, and Bears. Belichick’s team has a nasty habit of playing to the level of its competition, but that won’t be a problem in the pressure cooker of the postseason.
Counterpoint: the Chargers are equally good on the road
If there’s any team who can win in a hostile environment, it’s the one that’s never really had a home-field advantage. Los Angeles isn’t exactly beloved in their new Hollywood(ish) digs. Dignity Health Sports Park hasn’t been a healthy home environment for its temporary tenant:
How many Chargers fans do you see in this image of a Chargers home game pic.twitter.com/F97c2YiQuu— Rodger Sherman (@rodger) September 9, 2018
Those hardships have only toughened up a veteran-laden team. Los Angeles thrives on the road; the Chargers are 9-1 away from home this season, with the only defeat coming within city limits in a 12-point loss to the Rams. In that span, they’ve beaten the Seahawks, Steelers, Chiefs, Titans, and now the Ravens. The Chargers haven’t lost a game outside of Los Angeles since 2017, giving this Patriots matchup an “unstoppable force/immovable object” feel.
The Chargers have some deep-seated revenge coming vs. New England
In 2006, the Chargers were 14-2 and heavy favorites to take home the AFC crown. San Diego had a 21-13 lead late in the fourth quarter when Tom Brady dropped back to pass on fourth-and-5 and delivered an interception into the hands of safety Marlon McCree. That should have been the end of the game ... but Troy Brown had other ideas.
Brown stripped McCree, giving the Patriots new life and giving Brady the chance to add to his legacy with a late rally that delivered a 24-21 win and a spot in the AFC title game. The Chargers were pissed — LaDainian Tomlinson bashed Belichick for having “no class” after the game — but they’d get a shot at revenge the following season. In 2007, that same team ran into an undefeated New England team and held the league’s highest-scoring offense to just 21 points — but couldn’t capitalize thanks in part to poorly-timed injuries to Rivers and Tomlinson.
The two sides haven’t met in the playoffs since then. The Chargers have since switched towns and turned over nearly all of their roster and front office, but one man remembers all of this — and he’s the same guy that nearly ruined the Patriots’ perfect season on one leg more than a decade ago.
Philip Rivers’ legacy may depend on the result
Rivers already saw his two best chances at a Super Bowl title extinguished by the Patriots in 2006 and 2007. Now, what may be his last opportunity to add a championship ring to his resume leads him into New England one more time.
The veteran’s late-career renaissance pushed him into the MVP race before a December slump dulled the shine of an outstanding season. Rivers completed more than 68 percent of his passes, threw for 32 touchdowns, and tied a career high with a 105.5 passer rating. But none of that will mean anything if he can’t lead his Chargers to the promised land, if only once in a storied career.
Here’s what Adam Stites had to say about the west coast fixture.
Now 15 years into his NFL career, Rivers is eighth all-time in passing yards with 54,656, and sixth in touchdowns with 374. His streak 208 consecutive starts is the longest active run in the NFL and 11th-longest ever.
But every player above him on the passing leaderboards has played in a Super Bowl. Even Dan Marino — famous for a brilliant career, but no championship rings — made it to Super Bowl XIX. Rivers, though, has only made it as far as the AFC Championship.
That was back in January 2008, a 21-12 loss to the then-undefeated New England Patriots. The game is best remembered for Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson sitting on the bench due to a knee injury. He watched with his helmet on through a dark visor while Rivers struggled against the Patriots with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Now, at age 37, Rivers is getting another crack at the one thing that has eluded him during his NFL career: postseason success. If he finally finds it, maybe he’ll get the long-deserved recognition that has also proved evasive.
Rivers has always been an overlooked piece of the “top quarterback in the NFL” debate. Toiling away in San Diego and in front of disinterested crowds in Los Angeles has made him difficult to remember sometimes. Getting to the Super Bowl would make him hard to forget.
The Chargers have New England’s kryptonite — a crushing pass rush
The Chargers got sacks on a modest 6.5% of opponent dropbacks during the regular season, but that was with an injured Joey Bosa playing just seven games. On Sunday, they got to Lamar Jackson seven times, forcing the Ravens into -2 net passing yards through 50 minutes of game time. Los Angeles never allowed Jackson to get set in the pocket, and his accuracy sunk to new depths in the fallout — he completed just three of his first 10 passes.
Teams that have been able to stop Tom Brady have done so by knocking him off balance with relentless pressure. The Giants did it twice to win a pair of Super Bowls. The Broncos got to Brady four times to claim the 2015 AFC Championship. Convincing losses to the Jaguars, Lions, and Titans this season all saw Brady sacked more times than his opposing quarterback.
Joey Bosa coming free up the middle is a scary sight for quarterbacks.— Eleven Warriors (@11W) January 6, 2019
The first-ever sack in the NFL playoffs for the former Buckeye.pic.twitter.com/ycxtyzVTYs
Bosa showed off his drive and quickness by sacking the elusive Ravens’ QB one time in the Wild Card round. Melvin Ingram added two more. Imagine what they can do against Brady — the 1988 Toyota Tercel to Jackson’s 2017 Countach.
But the Patriots are still the Patriots
For all their warts, New England still recorded one of the league’s best records. Brady finished his season with 4,300 passing yards and 29 touchdowns. Sony Michel emerged as the club’s top running option since Corey Dillon was freed from Cincinnati. The club’s bend-don’t-break defense remained a top 10 unit in terms of points allowed. Stephon Gilmore proved himself worthy of every cent of the rare massive free agent contract he landed with the notoriously thrifty club.
The Patriots will almost certainly open as betting favorites against a Chargers team that finished the 2018 season with a better record than they did. Los Angeles overcame situation after situation where they’d been counted out. Now they’re just one win away from matching Rivers’ deepest dive into the playoffs in his 15-year career.