Heading into Sunday’s divisional-round showdown with the Los Angeles Chargers, the New England Patriots were considered a team that couldn’t stop the run and had an aging quarterback midway down a precipice, staring off a cliff.
The 2018 Patriots still have one big question to answer Sunday when they take on the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game: Can they be the same team on the road as they are at home?
But they put two big concerns to rest in their first playoff win of the season.
The Patriots’ first step to stopping the run came by jumping out to an early lead. They scored on their first drive before the Chargers tied it up on their ensuing series. Then the Patriots kept scoring while the Chargers kept stalling. Running the ball while trailing 38-7 is a losing endeavor. You might as well try to punt your way to victory.
The Chargers only tried running the ball 10 times against the Patriots.
Here’s how we charted it:
1. Regular defense. No gain. Kyle Van Noy run stuff.
2. Nickel. 8-yard gain. Flowers get pancaked by a double team.
3. Regular. 1-yard gain. Roberts shoots gap for run stuff.
4. Nickel. 8-yard gain. Van Noy taken out at second level.
5. Nickel. No gain. Van Noy run stuff.
6. Nickel. No gain. Lawrence guy stacks and sheds, John Simon overpowers O-lineman for run stuff.
7. Nickel. 3-yard loss. Simon doesn’t budge against pulling guard for run stuff. (This was one of the most impressive plays of the year. Chargers guard Michael Schofield outweighs Simon 301 to 260. Simon didn’t move an inch.)
8. Goal line. No gain. Roberts shoots gap for run stuff.
9. Nickel. 1-yard touchdown. Van Noy late to hit his gap.
10. Dime. 4-yard gain. Adrian Clayborn overpursues.
Roberts and Simon were tremendous against the run, each registering two stuffs. Guy and Van Noy helped neutralize the ground game, as well.
On the other side of the ball, Brady went 34-of-44, released the ball in 2.18 seconds on average and four of his incompletions weren’t accuracy-related issues. The Patriots dropped two passes. Brady was hit as he threw the ball once, and a pass was batted at the line.
Much will likely be made of Brady’s reliance on short passes, but he took what the Chargers’ defense gave him. And in the Chargers’ Cover-3 zone defense, the shallow part of the field was wide open for running back James White to feast on early in the game.
On “aimed” passes, Brady went 9-of-13 on throws behind the line of scrimmage, 19-of-22 in throws from 0-to-9 yards, 4-of-5 from 10-to-19 yards and 1-of-2 on throws of 20-plus yards. So, he completed 80 percent of aimed short passes and 71.4 percent of intermediate-to-deep passes. Brady’s touchdown to wide receiver Phillip Dorsett came on his sole deep completion.
Most of Julian Edelman’s nine catches came on short throws, but he also caught three of Brady’s intermediate throws while racking up a new postseason career high with 151 yards. Edelman fared well in the intermediate part of the field because he’s experienced and savvy enough to be zone-beater.
The Chiefs primarily play man coverage so the Patriots will have to adjust in the AFC Championship Game. The Chiefs’ defense also isn’t very good so it might not be overly difficult for White, Edelman and the rest of the Patriots’ receivers to get open Sunday.
More observations from this week’s film review:
— It’s nice to see Phillip Dorsett finally carved out a bigger role in the offense. It’s clear his chemistry with Brady is better than Chris Hogan’s right now.
— Running back Sony Michel had one of his best games as a pro. He ripped off the longest run of his career, a 40-yarder.
— Cornerback Jason McCourty had a rough game, allowing over 100 yards. The Patriots will have to rely heavily upon Stephon Gilmore and JC Jackson to cover Tyreek Hill next week. Gilmore and Jackson played well against the Chargers.
— Safety Devin McCourty continued to shine. The Patriots will need him and Patrick Chung to hold down Travis Kelce next week.
— Tackles Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon neutralized Chargers pass rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. Brown and right guard Shaq Mason also were particularly impressive as run blockers. Center David Andrews and left guard Joe Thuney didn’t allow any pressures.
— Defensive end Trey Flowers and linebacker Dont’a Hightower were the Patriots’ best pass rushers. The Patriots’ pass rush as a whole was tremendous, but they didn’t need to worry about containing Rivers. They won’t be as productive next week against Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, who is much more mobile.