After enjoying a first-round playoff bye, the New England Patriots will host the Los Angeles Chargers in the divisional round Sunday at Gillette Stadium, with the winner advancing to the AFC Championship Game.
Here’s what to watch for:
Time: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET
Location: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
The Patriots are pegged as four-point favorites over the visiting Chargers, who defeated the Baltimore Ravens 23-17 on the road in the wild-card round. Away games haven’t fazed LA this season, as Philip Rivers and Co. have gone a perfect 9-0 in games played outside of Los Angeles County, including wins in Seattle, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and London.
Likewise, the Patriots are 8-0 at home. They have not lost at Gillette Stadium since Week 4 of the 2017 season.
New England prevailed in these teams’ most recent meeting — 21-13 in Week 8 of last season — and has won each of its two playoff matchups against the Chargers during the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era.
Rivers, who turned 37 last month, is winless in seven career games against Brady-led Patriots teams. He’s looking to send the Chargers to their first AFC Championship Game since 2007, when they lost to the undefeated Pats in Foxboro.
The Patriots have not lost in the divisional round since 2010, appearing in each of the last seven AFC title games.
The winner of this game will play the winner of Saturday’s divisional-round matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts.
No snow is expected Sunday, but this will be a cold one, with temperatures in the 20s and high teens likely.
As a player who’s spent his entire 15-year NFL career in Southern California, Rivers doesn’t have much experience playing in weather like this. He’s 1-3 in his career in games played in sub-30 degree temperatures and didn’t play in one colder than 39 degrees this season.
Brady, who’s known for playing his best football late in the season, is 23-4 in such games.
The Patriots are almost completely healthy, with safety Devin McCourty (left Week 17 with a concussion), wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (missed Week 17 with a knee injury) and tight end Dwayne Allen all being removed from the injury report this week.
Defensive end Deatrich Wise is the only player currently listed on the Patriots’ injury report. He’s questionable for Sunday’s game with an ankle injury.
Chargers running back Melvin Gordon was removed from his team’s injury report, but only after missing practice Wednesday and being limited Thursday with a knee injury. He’ll play, but he might not be at full health after getting banged up against Baltimore.
Tight end Hunter Henry, fullback Derek Watt, cornerback Brandon Facyson and linebacker Kyle Wilson are listed as questionable for LA. Henry was activated this week after missing the entire regular season and the wild-card round with a torn ACL.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
James White, Patriots running back
The Chargers allowed the most receiving yards to running backs of any team during the regular season, and White is one of the NFL’s top pass-catching backs. He was far more productive over the first nine games (61 catches, 531 yards, six touchdowns) than he was over the final seven (26, 220, one), but he faces a favorable matchup this weekend.
Rex Burkhead is a threat in the passing game, as well. When these teams met last season, Brady went 14-for-15 for 163 yards when targeting running backs, with White catching five of six for 85 yards and Burkhead catching seven of seven for 68.
Sony Michel hasn’t shown much in the way of receiving ability thus far (seven catches, 50 yards in 13 games this season), but he had one of the best rushing seasons by a Patriots rookie in recent memory (931 yards, six scores). If the Chargers opt to utilize the seven-defensive back look they rolled with against the Ravens, look for the Patriots to pound the ball with Michel and fullback James Develin.
Melvin Gordon, Chargers running back
The Chargers boasted the NFL’s third-best rushing offense during the regular season, and Gordon, White’s former protégé at Wisconsin, was the primary reason for that. A dual-threat back, Gordon averaged 5.1 yards per carry and 114.6 yards from scrimmage per game this season.
His knee injury is a real concern, though. If Gordon, who’s missed four games this season, isn’t 100 percent Sunday, it’ll be up to impressive second-year pro Austin Ekeler and seventh-round rookie Justin Jackson to pick up the slack.
Cordarrelle Patterson, Patriots wide receiver
How wary are the Chargers of Patterson’s kick return ability? They signed a second kicker this week strictly to handle kickoffs. Patterson earned second-team All-Pro honors as a returner this season, and he was a valuable offensive weapon for the Patriots. Expect him to make an impact after sitting out Week 17.
Derwin James, Chargers safety
One of two first-team All-Pros in the Chargers’ secondary (along with slot corner Desmond King), James was fantastic as a rookie this season, leading the team in tackles and pass breakups while also tallying 3 1/2 sacks, four tackles for loss, six quarterback hits and three interceptions. Asked this week to describe the versatile Florida State product, Patriots players and coaches used words like “game-changer,” “hammer” and “tremendous football player.”
James likely will see a lot of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski on Sunday, and he also could be tasked with covering White or Burkhead out of the backfield. His 20 QB pressures this season show he’s a viable pass-rushing threat, too.
J.C. Jackson, Patriots cornerback
Jackson has been a treat to watch this season, boasting the lowest passer rating against among all NFL cornerbacks and allowing zero touchdown passes. The undrafted rookie said this week he expects Rivers to target him often, especially with first-team All-Pro Stephon Gilmore patroling the other side of the field for New England.
It’s unclear at this point how the Patriots will approach the Chargers’ talented receiving corps, but the most likely option is to have Gilmore shadow Pro Bowler Keenan Allen, leaving Jackson and veteran Jason McCourty — both of whom will be playing in their first playoff game — to handle 6-foot-3 Mike Williams and 6-foot-4 Tyrell Williams.
Jackson is highly confident in his coverage abilities, boasting this week: “I feel like nobody can catch a pass on me. That’s my mindset.”
Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, Chargers defensive ends
Bosa and Ingram are one of NFL’s best edge-rushing duos, and keeping them away from Brady will be the No. 1 priority for New England’s offensive line. The Patriots did a reasonably good job of that in these teams’ last meeting, as Bosa and Ingram piled up 17 quarterback pressures between them but managed just one sack and one QB hit.
The Chargers often shift Ingram — and, to a lesser extent, Bosa — inside on third downs, so the Patriots’ entire O-line will need to be up to the task of blocking LA’s sack leader. Ingram’s two sacks and Bosa’s one against Baltimore all came against the Ravens’ left guard.
Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images