FOXBORO – The records and achievements of this glorious, unfathomable Tom Brady and Bill Belichick Era are too many to mention.
Here’s one that will never, ever be topped: For the ninth consecutive season, the Patriots earned a bye in the American Football Conference. When they open the playoffs Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, they’ll enjoy yet another Divisional round game before the friendly faces at Gillette Stadium.
This is not supposed to happen. The Patriots toil in an NFL that operates with a salary cap, that socialistic creation that is supposed to lead to a relatively level playing field. Breaking the code and creating a dynasty like the one in Foxboro flies in the face of these rules.
The biggest byproduct the Patriots claim from the combination of their continued excellence and the fumbling and bumbling in the AFC East is a long line of playoff home games. We’ve seen the act seemingly forever now. The Patriots welcome an overmatched team into Gillette, they take care of business and the football world marches on.
That all ends on Sunday.
This does not mean the Patriots’ season is set to come to a close. What it does mean is that the Chargers are the best divisional round opponent the Patriots have ever faced with Brady/Belichick at Gillette. In fact, it’s not close.
Just ask Las Vegas. In eight previous playoff openers, the Patriots were favored by a touchdown or more seven times. In six of the eight, Brady and crew covered the spread. The Vegas wags installed the Pats as 4.5 points faves this week, but the bettors pushed that down to 4.
Most playoff teams carry false bravado in their gym bags when they come to Foxboro and are simply fortunate to still be playing. We’ve had to groan through blowout playoff wins over opposing QB’s like Tim Tebow (Broncos, 2011), Matt Schaub (Houston 2012), Brock Osweiler (Houston, 2016) and Marcus Mariota (Tennessee, 2017).
That all ends Sunday.
The Chargers (12-4) are the real deal. In fact they enjoyed a better regular season than the Pats (11-5) and aren’t hosting only because of a tiebreaker with the Chiefs. Besides winning more games than the Patriots, the Chargers have more Pro Bowl players (seven to two) and first-team All-Pros (three to one) on their roster.
“They tied for the best record in the AFC,” said Patriots safety Duron Harmon. “They were able to win on the road (7-1) as well. It’s going to be a great challenge for us as a football team.”
There is a lot to like about the Chargers. First is their swag. They aren’t intimidated by a trip to Foxboro. In fact they seem to welcome it as their Any Squad, Any Place (ASAP) motto states. Last week they won a wild card game in Baltimore. They’ve also won at Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Seattle, four of the toughest home venues in the NFL.
“We have a tough football team, no doubt,” said second-year coach Anthony Lynn. “I think going on the road doesn’t really faze this team. We just love ball. We like playing football and competing.”
The Chargers have a veteran quarterback in Philip Rivers, a dual purpose back in Melvin Gordon and a bevy of receivers led by Keenan Allen, big rookie Mike Williams and Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates.
They’ll put points on the board but this game will come down to how effective the Charger defense can be against Brady & Co. The pass rushing of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram catches eyes, as does the flexibility of the rest of the unit. A week ago the Chargers chose to use seven defensive backs on 58 of their 59 defensive snaps, a switch that both surprised and suffocated the Ravens.
That’s not going to fly against the Pats. Sony Michel will run wild if they line up safeties at linebacker. How the Chargers utilize their collection of speedy DB’s against Brady and New England’s versatile offense holds the key to the game.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was quite blunt when asked about the Chargers defense. “This is the best group we’ve played all year,” he said.
McDaniels is right. This is the best team the Patriots have played all season, a team that beat Kansas City in Arrowhead Stadium and shouldn’t get shook in Gillette.
These guys aren’t the Texans or the Titans or a bad brand of Broncos. This won’t be another edition of a Patriot playoff blowout.
But it will be another win. It’s tough to envision Brady losing at home so let’s go with the Pats, 20-16.