Sports

Tom Brady, Patriots have broken Chargers’ hearts before

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — What do you believe in? Are you married to the numbers, the statistical trends? Do you believe in mystique or do you believe in reality?

When analyzing Sunday’s 1 p.m. AFC divisional playoff game between the Patriots and Chargers at Gillette Stadium, the eye test tells you the Chargers are the better, more complete team. Does that mean the Chargers will win and advance to the AFC Championship?

Not if you believe in the numbers. Not if you believe in mystique.

The 11-5 Patriots, winners of the AFC East for the past 10 seasons and 15 of the previous 16, take into the game a 19-3 home playoff record under the watch of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.

A Patriots win would put them in their eighth consecutive AFC championship game. They’re seeking their ninth Super Bowl appearance and their sixth title with Belichick as their coach and Brady as their quarterback.

The Chargers, with likely future Hall of Fame quarterback Philip Rivers, are 0-7 against Brady and the Patriots. The only game the Chargers won against New England came in 2008, when Brady was out with a knee injury.

“They’re used to these kind of games,” Rivers said. “So it’s gonna be a heck of a challenge. I’ve got to focus on their defense. I’m not playing Tom, by any means. But is it special to go to New England against a Hall of Fame coach and arguably the best quarterback ever to play and get another shot at them? Heck, yeah. It is special.”

Brady has as many Super Bowl titles (five) as Rivers has postseason wins (he is 5-5). Brady’s 27 postseason wins are the most of any quarterback in NFL history.

Sunday marks the first time in 11 years that Brady and Rivers have faced each other in the playoffs. The Patriots beat the Chargers in the playoffs following the 2006 and 2007 seasons.

The game that hurts most to Chargers fans is the 24-21 loss after going 14-2 and earning the top seed in 2006. And, when defensive back Marlon McCree picked off Brady with about six minutes remaining and the Chargers ahead, 21-13, it should have sealed the game. Instead of staying down and giving Rivers the ball back, he tried to return the interception, Patriots receiver Troy Brown stripped him of the ball and New England recovered to regain possession. That enabled Brady to engineer the comeback win.

The following year, the Chargers played the AFC Championship game at New England against the undefeated Patriots. Rivers had a procedure done on his knee earlier that week, and Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson left the game early with an knee injury.

Brady yet again crushed the will of the Chargers, engineering a fourth-quarter drive that ate up more than nine minutes of the clock and clinched a 21-12 win.

“It’s exciting to get another chance,” Rivers said. “When you get in [to the playoffs] and now you know you’re one of eight teams, that’s all you can ask for is a chance. And we have a chance. That’s all we have is a chance. This is a cool team to be a part of.’’

Marquee Matchup

Patriots WR Julian Edelman vs. Chargers CB Desmond King

Julian Edelman and Desmond King
Julian Edelman and Desmond KingGetty Images (2)

Edelman is Tom Brady’s go-to receiver, having caught 74 passes for 850 yards and six TDs in 12 games. He has an uncanny knack for getting open and making the most clutch catches. King is the Chargers’ nickel corner, assigned to the slot receiver, and is, pound-for-pound, as tough and elusive as Edelman. Covering the slot receiver, King has three INTs and quarterbacks have a 78.9 passing against him, according to Pro Football Focus. Both also are the punt returns for their teams, and King also returns kickoffs.

Four Downs

Gronk factor: Perhaps no player will affect this game more greatly than Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. He has constantly battling physical issues this year and had a pedestrian season statistically, catching just 47 passes for 687 yards and a career-low three TDs. This is a departure from his often-dominant career that has featured four seasons with at least 100 receptions and five seasons with double-digit TD catches.

He often will be covered by standout Chargers rookie Derwin James, who was named a First Team All-Pro at safety, is athletic and has the size (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) to get after Gronkowski. James held Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce to 2 yards on two catches in Week 15.

Special forces: Watch out for Chargers cornerback Desmond King in the kick return game. He was a difference maker in the Chargers wild-card win over the Ravens with a 72-yard kickoff return and a 33-yard punt return. King averaged 13.8 yards on punt returns this season with a TD and 23.7 yards on kickoff returns. The Patriots allowed an average of 10.2 yards on punt returns and 24.6 yards on kick returns. New England’s Cordarrelle Patterson is a kick-return threat, averaging 28.8 yards per return with a 95-yard TD.

Who’s on White? Patriots running back James White doesn’t jump out of the tape when you watch him. But he does everything, and he’s good at it. When the Patriots’ offense needs it, White produces it for them. He has 181 touches from scrimmage this season for 1,176 yards and 12 TDs. That comes from 425 yards and five TDs rushing and 87 catches for 751 yards and seven TD receptions. Watch for a number of screens underneath and wheel routes to White. One of the Chargers’ vulnerabilities this season has been defending running backs in the passing game.

Rush to judgment: How the Patriots’ offensive line handles the Chargers’ pass rush will go a long way toward determining the result. Defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are a handful. Bosa has 5.5 sack in seven games. Ingram led the team with seven sacks. The Patriots, though, have allowed Tom Brady to get sacked just 21 times this season, some of that a credit to Brady getting rid of the ball quickly. The best way to disrupt Brady has always been with pressure up the middle. Ingram and Bosa are sometimes used as interior rushers, as they were against the Ravens last week.

Cannizzaro’s Call

The Chargers and Philip Rivers finally get one against Brady and the Patriots. The Chargers’ defense will get some disruptive pressure on Brady and their special teams, perhaps with a big Desmond King kick return, might end up being the difference in what should be a close, tense game — with Chargers kicker Michael Badgley winning it with a field goal.

Chargers 23, Patriots 22

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