Here are five keys to the game heading into Sunday's Divisional Round game between the Chargers and Patriots.
1. Don't Beat Yourself – The New England Patriots present enough of a problem that you can't expect to leave Foxborough with a win if you compound things with self-inflicted wounds. After all, the Pats certainly won't make those types of mistakes. There's a lot to be said about New England's dynasty over the past two decades, but what isn't said enough is how they simply don't beat themselves. However, Head Coach Anthony Lynn made sure to make that a focal point earlier this week. There's so much to marvel about the Patriots, but the manner in which they go about their business is unrivaled. Thus, as Lynn stressed, the Chargers must play a similar type of ball if they expect to beat New England on their home turf:
"We're going to have to play our best ball and not beat ourselves. That's something they do well — they don't beat themselves — and they have one of the better quarterbacks to ever play the game. That makes them hard to beat alone. Like I said, it's about us more than it is about them…."
2. Pressure Brady – The goal remains the same as last week. It's imperative to get after the passer. The Chargers did just that in the Wild Card win against the elusive Lamar Jackson, sacking him seven times to tie the team's franchise mark for postseason sacks in a single game. They go up against a completely different type of passer this week in Tom Brady…yet the challenge figures to be even harder than a week ago. In fact, it's likely their biggest challenge all year as the Patriots gave up the third fewest sacks in the NFL this season (21). However, Brady was not just adept at evading sacks. The Patriots allowed the lowest pressure rate of any team in the NFL (17.4 percent). Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are two of the best at getting after the quarterback, but they also figure to be in for a long day as New England allowed the lowest rate of pressure from the edge (9.6 percent). As Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley explained, there are many reasons why Brady is one of the best at avoiding sacks:
"I think every week that's the job -- to try to affect the quarterback somehow. (Brady's) so good at reading coverages (and) extending plays in his own way. The way he handles the offense, he's been in that style of offense for many years, so they're on the same page. I think when you look at it, I mentioned this before as a defense, what we strive to be is a precision (defense). Well, their offense operates with precision, and they're all on the same page. As you watch it, you can see it all come together for them."
3. Triple-Threat – Tom Brady obviously gets a lot of publicity as one of the greatest to ever play the game, but the 2018 New England Patriots also boast one of the most versatile, dangerous running back rooms in the NFL. Simply put, they have three RBs who can beat you in various ways in James White, Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead. White enters the playoffs as one of the NFL's most versatile weapons. He set a franchise record for a running back with a team-high 87 catches, which were good for 751 yards and seven touchdowns. The former Wisconsin star also carried the ball 94 times for 425 yards and five touchdowns. Meanwhile, Michel is in the midst of an impressive rookie campaign, toting the rock a team-high 209 carries for 931 yards and six touchdowns. And then there's Burkhead, the wily veteran who missed most of the season due to injury but has been a key cog ever since his return. What makes them so dangerous is that you never know how the Pats plan to deploy their three-headed attack. Oh, and if that wasn't enough, the Patriots also deploy Cordarrelle Patterson out of the backfield as well, unafraid to hand it off to him or toss a quick pass in his direction. Still, it's White, Michel and Burkhead who get most of the attention, and Bradley knows the Bolts have their hands full when it comes to the triple-threat:
"Their running backs are very effective. They really have three running backs, and…they'll show up in empty sets and they're very effective. They'll have explosive plays themselves. So we always go into each game, stop the run — and then No. 2, eliminate explosive plays and somehow we've got to affect the quarterback. You know, to give him those throws to running backs, it's our style of defense that we play, and we go about it that way, and we try to put our guys in the best position to play those things."
4. TDs not FGs – With Philip Rivers leading the way, the Chargers once again featured one of the NFL's most explosive offenses during the regular season. However, in recent weeks the team has too often had to settle for field goals going up against the Baltimore Ravens (twice) and Denver Broncos. Well, this week they know they must finish their drives in the end zone rather than settling for three. Just like the Chargers, New England boasts a terrific bend-but-don't-break defense. The Patriots are lights-out once the opposition gets into the red zone, which is a major reason why they ranked seventh in the regular season in points against (20.7). So, what stands out about their red zone defense? Here's what Philip Rivers had to say about why they're so impressive once you get inside the 20:
"I think, again, how well they play together. I think that's the key. How well they play as a group. You just see them. Their different fronts, their different personnel groups, and they play so well together. How they communicate, there are guys that switch things off, and hey, you just see how well from a cover standpoint how they — all the way around, they're on the same page. You don't see guys screaming running wide open. You don't see busted coverages. You don't see them not gap sound, all those things again, that I think are the fine details. It's funny, if you get to this point that, you know, you say the first meeting in high school, it comes down to the fundamentals. It comes down to blocking and tackling and protecting the football. Yes, we have to make some plays and there will be things schemed up, and they'll scheme things up — but who can outexecute the other, and that's what they've been able to do more than not in the last 15, 20 years."
5. Enjoy the Moment – Postseason football is as high pressure as it gets…but you can't forget to enjoy the moment! That's exactly what the Bolts did last week in Baltimore. They simply went out, had fun and played the same game they have since they were children. Need proof? Just look at Philip Rivers' first down signal that went viral. Well, the Chargers need to play with that same attitude in New England. Facing the Patriots in the postseason in Foxborough is as daunting as it gets, so while you're cognizant of what's at stake, the Bolts know they can't let it overwhelm them. So, as Rivers explained, the Chargers simply must enjoy this moment:
"I think you have to. Again, it's a job, it's an important one. You know, families and the many people involved — as you see across this league with different jobs and things that get turned over, and coaches and everybody involved, and players as well have moved all over the place. Thankfully, I've been with one franchise for my whole career, but at the same time, if it's not fun, it's the wrong deal. It is a game. So I think that was important for us last week. Let's not say, 'Hey, we have to play a perfect game this week. This is the playoffs. Let's play a perfect game.' No, let's just play. We're going to miss some throws, miss some tackles. We're not going to play perfect because we haven't all year, but attention to detail, have fun, play how we've always played, that's when we play our best, and see if we can find a way to get it done, and we did. The challenge is can we do it again? Can we go 1-0 this week? I know it's a boring approach, but it is the one we have to focus on because that's only game we can win or we even have a chance to win, is the one on Sunday."
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