Two of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks will face off for the eighth time in their storied careers in New England on Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately for Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, he has lost all seven of the Chargers and Patriots’ previous matchups in the Tom Brady-Rivers era.
Brady and Rivers’ combined 78 years and 199 days in age makes them the oldest opposing quarterbacks to play since the 1970 merger, according to the NFL.
The last time the Chargers and Patriots met in the postseason was the in the AFC Conference Championship during the 2007 playoffs. That game was also at New England.
In 2018, the Patriots are undefeated in Foxborough. However, the Chargers are 8-1 away from Los Angeles this season—including last week’s wild-card win at Baltimore—rendering it basically a wash. That said, the Chargers are flying across the country for the second time in a week.
The Patriots haven’t been knocked out in the divisional round since the 2010 playoffs—making it to seven consecutive AFC Championship games.
Below is a glance at updated odds heading into Chargers-Patriots and statistical predictions for key players. The divisional-round game will begin at 1:05 p.m. ET.
Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots (-4) | O/U 48
It must be said: Brady’s 41 years of age showed in 2018, but even with that said, the future Hall of Famer still threw for 4,355 yards and 29 touchdowns. As far as predicting how Brady may play against the Chargers, it depends on which regular-season games you choose to use as samples.
In Week 17, Brady torched the New York Jets for four touchdowns but only 250 yards on 72.7-percent passing. Just the week prior, he struggled to the tune of 126 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions on just 54.2-percent passing.
SBNation’s Christian D’Andrea summed it up well:
“While young players like Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield were making major leaps forward and veterans like Drew Brees and Philip Rivers were establishing career highs, Brady reverted back to his career averages — which, to be fair, are:
a) extremely good, and
b) unheard of for a 41-year-old quarterback.”
The Chargers defense sacked Lamar Jackson seven times in the AFC Wild Card round, and Melvin Ingram was a game-wrecker. Brady noted, again via the Chargers’ official website, that the Chargers pass defense was “just unbelievable” against Baltimore.
Playoff Brady is a different animal, though.
With 77 postseason touchdowns already to his name, Brady will add to that total on Sunday. It’s just a matter of how many touchdowns he will throw.
Prediction: Brady continues 2018 trend but still posts 275 yards and two touchdowns with one interception
Who better to assess Rivers than Brady? According to the Chargers’ official website, Brady had this to say:
“He’s kind of like me. He wants the ball out of his hands. He kind of wants to be able to anticipate coverages. He’s got really a great group of skill players—backs, tight ends, receivers. They’re playing as well as any offense that’s played all season.”
One weapon Rivers is expected to have at his disposal for the first time this season is tight end Hunter Henry, who is officially listed as questionable but coyly addressed his status to The Los Angeles Times. Rivers would welcome Henry as another option, but he did just fine in the regular season with the players he had. More than fine.
As Andy Benoit put it for Sports Illustrated a month ago:
“Coaches rave over Rivers’s style because, unconventional as it appears, it leads to plays being executed exactly as they’re drawn up. Rivers’s pocket mobility and toughness are perfect. His control of the pre-snap chess phase is masterful. Rivers understands every nuance of every play’s design, which is partly why he’s become football’s best anticipation thrower.
The Pats defense ranked 22nd against the pass in the regular season.
Prediction: Rivers has a career-defining game with 350 yards and three touchdowns through the air, while taking care of the ball with no interceptions
Is he fully healthy or not? That is by far the most prominent question surrounding the 29-year-old tight end these days, even though he only missed three games throughout the regular season. Gronkowski only caught three touchdown passes and averaged 52.5 yards per game.
Gronkowski knows, though, according to ESPN’s Jordan Raanan, there is “no room for excuses.” Raanan also provides a key statistic regarding who Gronkowski could be matched up against:
“Chargers rookie safety Derwin James has allowed tight ends to catch just 42 percent of their targets when he’s the nearest defender, the lowest catch percentage allowed to tight ends, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.”
This could go either way: a chronically hobbled Gronk hardly makes an impact or he goes off in a way we haven’t seen all season.
Prediction: the former; Gronkowski is kept relatively mute at three catches for 40 yards and no touchdowns
Allen posted his first 1,000-yard season since his rookie season in 2013 with 1,196 receiving yards on 97 catches in the regular season.
Against the Ravens on Wild Card Weekend, Allen was kept modest with four catches for just 37 yards and no touchdowns. In fact, Allen has been kept out of the end zone dating back to Dec. 9 in a win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Regardless, Allen poses a threat that defenses must account for, which has often left fellow wide receiver Mike Williams wide-open in the end zone. The Patriots will keep track of the 26-year-old, as head coach Belichick stated that “Keenan’s as good a receiver as there is in the National Football League.”
Expect to see the Patriots line up cornerback Stephon Gilmore man-on-man across Allen.
Prediction: Allen sets up the Williams as he has all season with four catches for 60 yards but no touchdowns
White has been crucial to the Patriots offense this season with 1,176 combined yards and 12 combined touchdowns on the ground and through the air.
It’s that dual-threat ability that helped the Patriots mount the largest Super Bowl comeback in history. In Super Bowl LI, White accounted for two rushing touchdowns but what really stood out were his 14 catches for 110 yards and another touchdown.
The 26-year-old back makes his name in the postseason—as Bleacher Report’s Tyler Dunne perfectly described White as “the perfect Patriots playoff weapon.”
Prediction: White contributes 50 yards on the ground but does real damage as a receiver for 100 yards and two touchdowns on 14 catches
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
In the opposing backfield is Gordon, who said to the Chargers’ official website of his relationship with former Wisconsin Badgers teammate White: “That’s like my big brother, man.”
On Sunday, Gordon will try to steal White’s spotlight as the game-changing back.
The 25-year-old has been nurturing nagging injuries throughout the regular season, which caused him to miss Week 7 due to his hamstring and three games in December because of his knee.
This bled into Wild Card Weekend when Gordon was diagnosed with a “little knee sprain,” according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.
Against the Ravens, Gordon punched in one touchdown but was contained to 40 yards on 17 carriers. Even missing four games in the regular season, Gordon posted 885 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. He also notched three 100-yard rushing games.
The Patriots finished the regular season ranked 11th in rushing defense. Without Gordon in the fold, the Chargers have utilized Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson; but it is a different game when Gordon is in and healthy (enough).
There is just no way of truly knowing what percentage we’re getting from Gordon’s body.
Prediction: Pats underestimate Gordon; Gordon goes for 105 combined yards and two touchdowns.