By the Numbers, Matchups to Watch and Fantasy Tips for Chargers-Patriots
Philip Rivers evened his postseason record at 5-5 with the Chargers’ win over the Ravens in the Wild Card Round. He has now won all of his four Wild Card Games in his career, but has lost four of five in the Divisional Round and reached the Conference Championship Game one time, in 2007. Rivers has never beaten Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in seven tries, including the postseason. The Chargers have won six of their last seven games, including the playoffs.
The Patriots have won their last four games against the Chargers. New England was undefeated at home this season, and the Chargers were 7-1 in official road games, although they did beat Tennessee in London and lost to the Rams in Los Angeles, not at their home venue. The Chargers are actually undefeated outside Los Angeles this season, so traveling East for this game may not be the significant disadvantage some perceive it to be. NFL Weather is forecasting a 22-degree day, but the wind will only be at five miles per hour.
Brady and Belichick have won 27 of 37 postseason games together since 2001. They have won five of their last six postseason games and nine of their last 11. They have not lost a home playoff game since 2012 and their last loss in the Divisional Round was in 2010. The Patriots won all four of their games against NFL playoff teams this season and won their final two regular season games by outscoring their opponents 62 to 15. New England held four of its last five opponents to less than 20 points.
The teams are evenly matched in some regular season categories. The Patriots were fourth in points scored and the Chargers were sixth. New England was seventh in points allowed and Los Angeles was eighth. The Patriots were eighth in passing yards per game and the Chargers were 10th. New England was better in rushing yards per game (fifth/15th), and while the Chargers were ninth defensively against the run and the pass, the Patriots were 22nd and 11th, respectively. New England was fifth in the league in takeaway difference (+10) while the Chargers were 15th (+1).
Without Josh Gordon and Rob Gronkowski not playing up to his usual standards, the Patriots could funnel much of their attack through their running back committee. The Chargers have a thinned LB crew and that could be an area that New England chooses to attack. Los Angeles deployed a three-safety look last week at Baltimore, and it will be interesting to see what defensive coordinator Gus Bradley comes up with this week to cover his losses at linebacker while being very wary of the trio of James White, Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead.
White, who had 15 targets in last year’s Super Bowl, is a big chess piece in this game, and he needs to be more involved as he was in the first 10 games of the season, when he had 66 of his 94 receptions. The Chargers allowed an AFC-high 974 receiving yards to RBs this season. Sony Michel carried 17 or more times in four of New England’s final six games, but he scored just once in the last five. He will remain the lead ball carrier and top option near the goal line, although he was inconsistent down the stretch. He did appear to be healthier late in the regular season, though, and a week off could mean he will be fresh and capable of posting some good numbers. Burkhead’s lesser workload tends to be unpredictable.
Otherwise, Los Angeles will have to be heavily concerned with Julian Edelman, but they can deal with him singularly with First Team All-Pro CB Desmond King. The Chargers could either choose to have another First Team All-Pro, safety Derwin James, on Rob Gronkowski, or may have him watch White at times as well. His versatility can dictate that he is employed on who Bradley feels deserves more important coverage as the game progresses. Ultimately, the Chargers have the secondary to match up well with the top New England pass-catchers.
The narrative has been that you can beat Tom Brady by hitting him often, and in addition to unleashing Joey Bosa, they can effectively move Melvin Ingram around as they did last week. Brady’s quick release and sound protection meant that he was only sacked 21 times, the third-lowest in the NFL. But there will be possibilities for coverage sacks this week because of the play of the Chargers DBs, so it is very possible that the Chargers can disrupt his rhythm. Using RBs to combat pass pressure will be a big key for New England.
Melvin Gordon has been banged up and totaled 123 rushing yards in his past three games. Austin Ekeler had only 43 yards from scrimmage in the Wild Card Game against Baltimore. If Los Angeles can re-establish their running attack and effectively involve their RBs in the passing game, it can fuel a potential victory. New England was 29th in rushing yards per attempt allowed this year (4.9), so getting Gordon rolling can be a path to an advantage. Keenan Allen has cracked 80 yards just once in his past six games and had a season-low 37 receiving yards in the Wild Card Game. He will see a lot of top cover man Stephon Gilmore, so Rivers is going to have to find other frequent ways to keep the passing game clicking. Mike Williams could be a big factor this week.
New England was third in the league with 18 interceptions, but Rivers threw just 12 picks and has cut down on the INTs over the past two years with 22. Six of his interceptions this season, though, did come in December. His passer rating of 105.5 tied for his highest career mark, which he achieved twice before, the last time in 2013, the most recent season the Chargers made the playoffs prior to this year. He had an equal amount of TDs and INTs at home and on the road (16/6).
FANTASY TAKES: The matchup is good for Gordon, who could break out of a mini-slump here. He is a viable play in one-and-done formats. Mike Williams will be a top TD target and could deliver a big gain or two. He’s an interesting play with the promise to possibly advance and then maybe face Kansas City in the next round. If you play with multipliers, you have to consider Williams. If he performs well against the Patriots, it could be considered a breakout game because of what is at stake. Michel and White are key players for the Patriots and should continue to be throughout their postseason. Edelman has a tough draw with King but will be up to the challenge. Gronkowski is always tempting, but if he sees a lot of James in coverage he will flame out again. Both QBs seem like solid plays, but don’t have the upside of the passers in the other AFC Divisional matchup.
DFS VIEWS: On the FanDuel Sunday slate, Rivers is the lowest priced among the four starting QBs at $7,600, so you have to take the shot with him in some tournament lineups. White and Gordon are both $7,500, and I would take White because he may be lesser owned and is more versatile. Williams is a quality play at $6,700 and you can consider Travis Benjamin as a punt at 4,600. Gronkowski is $1,200 less than Zach Ertz at 6,200 and is worth the risk more here than in a regular Fantasy Playoffs league. In the full DraftKings weekend games, Brady is friendly at fifth among QBs ($5,600). White is the must-start of the weekend at $4,900. Michel is also a very attractive option at $4,700. Edelman is the sixth WR on the pricing ladder at $6,300 and Williams must be locked in at 4,700. Benjamin is a punt on DK as well at $3,600.
GAME PREDICTION: The widespread created national storyline entering this game is that New England is ready to be knocked off and the Chargers are on the rise. But even though these don’t quite seem like the Patriots of the past, they still secured a bye in a “disappointing” season. New England still has the edge in postseason experience and success. Los Angeles is the trendy selection, and has the defense to make this a very tight game that could be lower-scoring than some expect. But if their ground game is ineffective the Chargers could be trading some three-and-outs with the Patriots instead of building a lead. Brady has historically been much more clutch than Rivers, and the Patriots have also been better in takeaway differential. I will take the Patriots to cover (-4) and the under (47.5), which is the lowest of the weekend. Patriots 23, Chargers 17.