NFL Playoffs: How the Chargers can top Tom Brady's Patriots - Sports Illustrated

Can the Chargers Win Another East Coast Road Game, This Time Against the Patriots?

The Chargers are underdogs on Sunday, but here's their game plan to upset the mighty Patriots.
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Before the divisional round of the playoffs, Andy Benoit is giving a blueprint for the four underdogs to win on the road. Here’s his plan for the Chargers against the Patriots.

On defense…

The surprising seven-defensive back package that Los Angeles presented last Sunday at Baltimore may seem like a viable tactic against a Patriots team that likes to spread out and throw to receivers inside. Having seven DBs leaves safeties Jahleel Addae and Adrian Phillips at the inside linebacker positions, where they’re “less overmatched” against Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan than a linebacker would be.

But just one problem: Some of those Patriots spread-empty formations come out of traditional two-back personnel, with fullback James Develin on the field. Employ all safeties and no linebackers and the Patriots will put Develin in an I-formation and pound you with interior runs. Develin is an excellent lead-blocker on these. In fact, this was New England’s primary offensive approach for much of December.

The Chargers are in a tough spot; they went to seven DBSs in the first place because they’re without top linebacker Jatavis Brown, who in Week 17 suffered a season-ending ankle injury. Alternate linebackers Hayes Pullard and Kyle Emanuel are decent thumpers, but either would be a liability in coverage. And so if the Chargers this week go with seven defensive backs, it’ll be more out of necessity than choice, and it won’t be as successful as it was last week. The Patriots have much more of a smashmouth ground game than the smoke-and-mirror Ravens.

Let’s also remember Tom Brady, though not as dominant this year as last year, is still a superstar QB. Typically, you wouldn’t mind an offense with a superstar QB trying to beat you on the ground. But the Patriots, when you consider their defense and special teams, are so good at managing game situations, playing field position and minimizing mistakes. You can legitimately fear losing to them in a slugfest game that’s not as close as the low final score suggests. In fact, that’s what happened last season when the Chargers visited Foxborough in Week 8, losing 21-13. 

And so L.A.’s best bet is to play Pullard or Emanuel (or even both), force the Patriots to make plays both on the ground and through the air, and trust that stars like Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Casey Hayward and Derwin James (the Rob Gronkowski matchup) give them enough talent to out-perform this still-dangerous, but-maybe-a-little-less-threatening-than-usual Patriots offense.

On offense…

Philip Rivers, and especially his pass protectors, struggled for much of the first half last week with Baltimore’s hallmark amoeba fronts and disguised blitzes. The Patriots are often regarded as a similarly highly-schemed, disguise-oriented defense, but that’s really not the case. If you can account for linebackers Dont’a Hightower and especially Kyle Van Noy, you’ll solve New England’s pressure packages. Rivers should feel comfortable with every page of L.A.’s passing game playbook this Sunday.

Usually, the Patriots eschew blitzing and keep seven, or even eight, defenders back in coverage. They prefer man-to-man and have 2018’s best cover corner, Stephon Gilmore, who figures to travel with route running ace Keenan Allen. That leaves undrafted rookie corner J.C. Jackson on either big downfield targets Mike Williams or Tyrell Williams (likely whichever one aligns furthest outside). That would seem to be the mismatch Rivers most desires, except Jackson plays much, much bigger than his 6'1”, 200-pound frame suggests, and he earned his starting role thanks to his downfield coverage prowess.

And so Rivers will send the ball to wherever the safeties dictate. Will New England’s doubling safety help Gilmore on Allen, or will he help Jackson on one of the Williams men? And will that doubler even be a safety? Usually the doubler is Devin McCourty, but Bill Belichick may want McCourty’s athleticism on scatback Austin Ekeler, whom Rivers leans on heavily in the checkdown game.

The good news for Rivers is he’ll have time to sort out these reads, as New England’s pass rush, assuming Trey Flowers is contained, won’t be a problem. The bad news is Rivers must be almost flawless since the QB opposite him this week is not a wide-eyed rookie, but rather, a five-time Super Bowl champion. 

Chance of an upset: 40 percent. The Chargers are better and the Patriots are worse than when they met last October, but since when does a talent deficiency hinder New England in January?

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