The L.A. Chargers have been impressive. At 13-4 the Bolts are riding a winning streak of 7 games since November, beating the Chiefs, the Steelers, and the Ravens (twice) during a sprint to the AFC Divisional Round.
Quarterback Philip Rivers finished the regular season with well over 4000 yards, and 32 passing touchdowns. Melvin Gordon leads a ground game that is churning out 1st downs. A resurgent defense (was the Charger defense ever all that, um, surgent in recent years?) held Lamar Jackson to less than 250 combined yards in last weekend’s Wild Card win.
Seems like the Chargers are suddenly capable of anything. What they can’t do is make Las Vegas odds-makers respect them as a favorite headed into a playoff meeting in Foxboro.
New England hasn’t impressed in December quite like the SoCal visitors. But the presence of Tom Brady and expected vintage Foxboro conditions have led to the Pats giving (-4) points on the spread and an Over/Under of (47).
The Patriot Mystique Endures
For Bill Belichick, the season has been about protecting his aging future HOFer behind center and getting the squad safely to this point. Certainly any pure analysis/comparison of form between Sunday afternoon’s teams would have led to bookies giving the Patriots points. The line may have opened favoring the NFL Athletes from Boston, but we know it wasn’t based on the above angle.
The Patriots were embarrassed by Tennessee on November 11th. Tom Terrific didn’t throw a TD pass and barely went 50% through the air as the running game sputtered to a halt in a 24-point drubbing. New England rebounded with wins over the Jets and Vikings, then lost to the Dolphins and Steelers in succession.
With Brady pushing 40 years old, Bill Belichick recently determined that asking an aging QB to throw 40+ passes from the pocket was a recipe for injury and disaster. When the 207 season began, the Pats shocked onlookers by running an old-fashioned I-formation and keeping the ball on the ground for a good chunk of their possessions. Like most of Belichick’s ideas, it worked like a charm.
Brady still has a green light to drop back and hit targets like Rob Gronkowski, one of the best tight ends of the modern era. But the offense is no longer a breathless aerial bombardment for 60 minutes at a time. In fact, it’s not suited for that style at all. If this version of the New England Patriots can’t run the football with Sony Michel or other backs, a more-conservative game plan is not going to work as well. Gronk was quiet in December.
The imbalance of pass-run ratio against the Titans means that the Pats’ blow-out loss was no accident – Brady can no longer crush an 8-in-the-box alignment by simply passing 50 times.
Bolts’ Bayonets Fixed on Brady
As usual a defense’s destiny against a legendary QB comes down to the pass rush. Los Angeles has allowed a healthy 4+ ypc mark from opposing ground games. The Pats aren’t pushing anyone around at the LOS, so Charger edge-rushers can still look forward to Brady-hunting on 3rd downs. DE Melvin Ingram has 7 sacks on the season, a decent number in the quick-throw era.
I can’t see much of an advantage either way on the line, since the Patriots have the home-venue snap count advantage. Philip Rivers doesn’t have to out-play Brady, but he has to utilize his superior set of game-management options.
If the Bolts rest on their laurels and play ball-control, they’ll be in for a bruising. Rivers must be able to get the ball to Keenan Allen consistently, and if the WR is double-covered, get the ball to secondary targets to punish the Pats. Having a strong running game is great, but the Chargers want to play from ahead. Playing from behind – and in bad field position – could be the death knell for the defense. If the Patriots are squeezed into their own territory and losing, then the aggressive play of the Charger defense will loom large.
Predicting the AFC Divisional Round ATS
Finally, the weather is forecast to be below freezing but nothing all that extreme. A slight overcast should keep Allen and Gronkowski warm enough to contribute.
Injuries could play a bigger role than the setting. Gordon and center Mike Pouncey each sat-out Wednesday practice for the Chargers, the virtual spine of a crucial ground game. Patriots safety Devin McCourty has recovered from concussion symptoms and was spotted on the practice field.
It’s hard to imagine the Chargers falling behind by more than a TD in the 2nd half and rallying back, but you can imagine Brady leading the Pats to that kind of crazy momentum. Maybe that’s why the line gives the Patriots a little more than a field goal. The betting community thinks that Foxboro itself will crush the Bolts.
I like the Chargers ATS unless the line sinks to (+3), but I’m liking the Under (47) more. New England isn’t built to put up 40+ points in blow-outs any more, and Belichick’s defense can key on tailback Austin Ekeler if Gordon is not at 100%. Rivers and Brady will carve-out more FG drives than touchdown marches.
The under is often a great cold-weather pick in the NFL. It might just be the best early play on Sunday.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.