Chargers at Patriots
Having set the bar so high since the arrival of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, even an average season by the New England Patriots was enough to earn a 10th consecutive AFC East title and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Seeking a ninth Super Bowl appearance in 18 years, the Patriots kick off their postseason by hosting the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.
New England lost consecutive December games for the first time since 2002 before winning its final two to wrap up the No. 2 seed, leading to talk that both the team and three-time NFL MVP Brady have lost a step. “I don’t see that. I see a team winning and figuring out ways to win," Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. "This team has been there so many times, they know how to win this time of the year. We’ve got to go in and play Chargers ball.” Though Los Angeles is the No. 5 seed, it had a better record than the Patriots and turned in an impressive performance by holding off a late rally in a 23-17 road win at Baltimore last week. "Really impressive football team," Belichick said of the Chargers. "Spent a lot of time watching them the last three or four days here and really pretty good at everything. That’s the reason they won 13 games."
TV: 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS. LINE: Patriots -4. O/U: 47.5
ABOUT THE CHARGERS (13-4): Philip Rivers has only one touchdown pass in the past three games and failed to throw for more than 181 yards in that span, but he has had one of his best seasons, tossing 32 TD passes and matching his career high with a 105.5 quarterback rating. Running back Melvin Gordon was hobbled down the stretch by an ankle injury that limited him in practice Thursday, but he still rushed for 10 touchdowns and had 50 receptions for four scores in only 12 games. Keenan Allen had 97 receptions to lead a deep, talented receiving corps that could see the return of tight end Hunter Henry, who tore an ACL in May but practiced fully Wednesday and Thursday. Defensive ends Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa lead a unit that registered seven sacks last week and ranked ninth against the pass this season (227.9 yards).
ABOUT THE PATRIOTS (11-5): Brady's numbers dipped across the board from last season, when he won his third MVP award, but he still threw for 4,355 yards with 29 touchdowns against 11 interceptions despite a revolving door at wide receiver. Rookie Sony Michel rushed for 931 yards and six touchdowns despite missing three games and fellow running back James White added 425 yards and five scores on the ground while leading the team with 87 receptions and seven TD catches. Julian Edelman is the top wideout with 74 catches but New England is hoping for a postseason revival from tight end Rob Gronkowski, who tied a career low with three touchdowns and had three or fewer catches in seven of his last eight games. The defense yields lots of yardage, ranking 21st (359.1), but has minimized the damage and is tied for sixth in scoring (20.3).
1. Brady has thrown for 1,982 yards with 13 TDs against one interception in his past five postseason games.
2. Rivers is 0-7 lifetime versus Brady, posting his only win against the Patriots in 2008 when Brady was hurt.
3. Gronkowski has 12 playoff touchdown catches, tied with John Stallworth for second on the all-time postseason list.