FOXBORO — This hasn’t been your prototypical Patriots season.
For the first time since 2009, the Patriots failed to win 12 regular-season games, finishing 11-5. For the first time since 2009, the Patriots were under .500 when playing on the road. If the Patriots want to avoid the same fate of that 2009 squad, the last Pats team to lose in the divisional round, they’ll have to get by a tough opponent in the Los Angeles Chargers.
There’s no sugarcoating it, the Chargers have a phenomenal roster. Their offense, defense and special-teams units are littered with Pro Bowl and All-Pro players. Los Angeles is the first 12-win wildcard team (seven wins were on the road) to visit Gillette Stadium since 2012, earning the trip after beating the Ravens, 23-17, in Baltimore.
This Patriots season has been strange. They never went on a dominant run as their five losses were spread out over the beginning, middle and end of the season. Maybe they’re saving their best for last.
Who has the edge?
When the Patriots run
Sony Michel had a solid rookie season, leading the Patriots with 931 rushing yards and six touchdowns. The first-round pick missed a handful of games due to a knee injury, so the Patriots began leaning on James White more. White had a career-high 425 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns. Rex Burkhead (186 yards) and Cordarrelle Patterson (228 rushing yards) also pitched in. Overall, the Patriots finished fifth in the NFL with 2,037 total rushing yards. The Chargers were ninth overall in rush defense, allowing 105.8 yards per game. They also have Pro Bowl pass rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa.
When the Patriots pass
Brady was off this season, but he wasn’t horrible. He finished seventh in passing yards, eighth in completions and 10th in touchdowns. The problems aren’t truly Brady. After losing Josh Gordon (suspension), there’s more pressure on Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, who hasn’t looked the same. Chris Hogan had a disappointing year. Phillip Dorsett has been solid when called upon. The Patriots were eighth in passing offense this season. The Chargers are ninth in passing defense, but have a secondary with All-Pro safety Derwin James, All-Pro slot corner Desmond King and two-time Pro Bowler Casey Hayward.
When the Chargers run
Melvin Gordon’s one of the best running backs in the NFL. The biggest question is his health after suffering a knee injury this season. In 12 games, Gordon ran for 885 yards and scored 10 rushing touchdowns. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry, which was eighth in the NFL. Backup Austin Ekeler ran for 554 yards while averaging 5.2 yards per carry (fifth in the NFL). He scored four rushing touchdowns. The Patriots have had some issues this season when defending the run. They finished 11th overall in run defense, but were inconstant in the second half.
When the Chargers pass
Philip Rivers finished fifth in NFL in passer rating, sixth in passing touchdowns and eighth in passing yards. Keenan Allen (6-foot-2) led the Chargers with 97 receptions, 1,196 yards and six touchdowns. Mike Williams (6-foot-4) had 43 catches for 664 yards and a team-high 10 touchdowns. Tyrell Williams (6-foot-4) had 41 catches for 653 yards and five scores. The Patriots are led by first-team All-Pro Stephon Gilmore. The question is can his teammates follow his lead? J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty will need to be on their game.
Stephen Gostkowski connected on 84.4 percent of his field goals this season (32 attempts). Chargers kicker Mike Badgley hit 93.8 percent of his field goals, but had just 16 attempts. Cordarrelle Patterson was named a second-team All-Pro as a kickoff returner, averaging 28.8 yards per return. Julian Edelman averaged 7.7 yards per punt return. Desmond King is an All-Pro punt returner, averaging 13.8 yards per punt return. He also averaged 23.7 yards per kickoff return. The Chargers allowed fewer yards per kickoff return (21.7) and punt returner (9.2) than the Patriots this season (24.6 and 10.2).
Bill Belichick is the best coach of all-time. On Sunday, Belichick will coach in his 40th postseason game. That's an NFL record — breaking his own mark. Belichick's five Super Bowl titles as a head coach are second all-time behind George Halas and Curly Lambeau, who both have six league championships. He's also been to more Super Bowls (11) in his career as a coach than anyone in NFL history. Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, meanwhile, has one career win in the postseason as a head coach.
PREDICTION: PATRIOTS 23, CHARGERS 20