Thursday, January 11, 2007

Patriots vs. Chargers Preview (1/11/2007)

Judging by the sound and the fury on both sides of this Sunday's game, it should be a barn-burner. San Diego comes into the game with ten straight victories, the most wins on the year (14), the #1 scoring offense (492 points, 65 better than any other team), the best scoring differential in the league (+189 points), the 2006 NFL MVP (LaDainian Tomlinson), the league's leading sacker (Shawne Merriman with 17), and home field throughout the AFC playoffs -- important because they went 8-0 at home this year. The Patriots, meanwhile, have won four straight, have the NFL's #2 scoring defense, are fourth in point differential (+148), have the best clutch QB in league history, have a head coach widely acknowledged as one of the best ever, and sport a 7-1 road record this year.

For every point, there seems to be a counter-point. Patriots fans point to Marty Schottenheimer's 5-12 playoff record, to the fact that twice before he entered the playoffs as the first seed only to lose in the first round, and to coach Bill Belichick's mastery over young quarterbacks. Chargers fans counter that Schottenheimer is 7-2 head-to-head against Belichick, that he's gotten away from the conservative "Martyball" that cost him dearly in previous years, or that mastery over young quarterbacks won't help the Pats stop Tomlinson.

With so many factors playing into the game, it will be tough determine how the game will play out, let alone who might win. But of course, that doesn't mean I won't give it my best shot.


Point #1. Play Martyball early and then let it fly.

Much has been made of Bill Belichick's talent for beating young quarterbacks in the playoffs. His defensive schemes are easily the most complex in the league, and the opponent never knows whether he will call for the 3-4, 4-3, 2-5, or 2-4-4-1 (two linemen, four linebackers, four defensive backs, and one Troy Brown). Add to the mix a young quarterback in his first playoff run, and there's bound to be confusion, which often leads to turnovers, which usually wins the game for the Patriots. This trend goes back a long way; for reference, check Byron Leftwich in 2006 or Ben Roethlisberger in 2005; or if you want to see more history, check Drew Bledsoe in 1994.

So I think the Chargers should use Martyball for the first two drives of the game. The Bill Belichick vs. Philip Rivers matchup calls for a more conservative, run-oriented start, until you get a few chances to see what the Patriots are doing on defense. If you want to throw early, make it a safe route or just have Rivers drop back, count to three, and then throw it out of bounds. The surest way to get in trouble is to have Rivers throw one or two interceptions -- then you will have to come from behind with a quarterback who's confidence is shaken.

I know many deride the idea of Martyball. But the Chargers should employ it for the first 8 - 10 plays of the game, and then take off the training wheels and go with the offense they think is best suited to win.

Point #2. The Chargers defensive front seven must dominate.

The Chargers led the NFL with 61 sacks, and their 3-4 defense held opposing quarterbacks to a 73.9 rating on the year. But neither of those stats has much to do with the secondary, which is probably best described as hard-hitting but the middle of the road. They've given up 307 receptions (16th in the NFL), 11.2 yards per catch (19th), 178 passing first downs (21st), 19 passing touchdowns (tied for 12th), and 16 interceptions (tied for 17th) . (Note: they rank lower than the Patriots in all of those categories. New England ranks 12th, 8th, 11th, 1st, and 4th respectively.)

So obviously, the strength of the Chargers defense is in their front seven -- and they need to dominate the game. The don't normally blitz a lot of guys, and they'd like to avoid it on Sunday. But if they have to blitz to stop the run and/or to get pressure on Brady, that exposes their middling secondary. So they have to stop the run early without committing extra guys and then get after the quarterback on passing downs. Otherwise, they will get worn down by the running game or they will get shredded by a great post-season quarterback.

Point #3. Let their talent win the day

For all my back-and-forthingabout this game, I wrote last week that the Patriots would need Rodney Harrison and Vince Wilfork back to beat either the Chargers or the Colts. Well, Harrison won't be playing, so the Chargers should be able to win by playing sound football and letting their talent win the individual battles and, in the end, the game. Without Harrison, both LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates could have big games, and if that happens, the Chargers probably win.


Point #1. Take advantage of Philip Rivers and grab an early lead.

For last year's playoff game, Jacksonville's Byron Leftwich studied 12 games of film on the Patriots defense. It was his first playoff start, and he wanted to be ready for whatever defense they threw at him. But all that study didn't do him any good. He admitted after the game that he didn't see anything in the game that he'd seen in the 12 weeks of film that he watched. And in the game he was sacked 4 times, threw for 179 yards, zero touchdowns and 1 interception, and he posted his lowest passer rating of the year (61.9).

Leftwich was a four-year starter, so imagine the possibility of confusion for first-year starter Philip Rivers. If the Patriots can get an early turnover and get out to a lead, that bodes ill for Rivers. Even if he doesn't turn it over early, the Patriots are also very adept at waiting out a young quarterback and grabbing late INTs to turn the game in their favor. However, that strategy depends on them stopping the run to stay in the game, a tough task without Rodney Harrison on the field. The best way to stop the run is to get the lead and make the Chargers abandon the run to come back from a deficit, and the best way to do that is to take advantage of Philip Rivers's inexperience.

Point #2. And you thought the Patriots wide receivers were bad.

All year long, you've heard it over and over. "How could the Patriots let David Givens *and* Deion Branch go?!?!" The sky was falling, it was the end of the world as we knew it, Belichick had gotten too cocky and gutted the team so he could make a point about salaries.

Well, as bad as the media bleating has been, let me introduce you to the Chargers wide receivers. They had 6 -- count 'em 6 -- touchdowns from the wide receiver position this year, and second-year man Vincent Jackson had them all. The other three wideouts on the roster combined for *zero* touchdowns the entire season. Overall, the Chargers wide receivers put up the following numbers: 117 catches for 1,756 yards and 6 touchdowns. As for the much-maligned Patriots wide receivers, their combined numbers look like this: 156 catches for 1,798 yards and 15 touchdowns. Suddenly, they don't look that bad, do they?

The strength of the Chargers passing game is with the tight ends, where Antonio Gates and Brandon Manumaleuna combined for 85 catches and 12 touchdowns. But without the threat of a vertical passing game, it will be much easier for the Patriots to hold the Chargers tight ends and running game in check. And I don't think those wide receivers are suddenly going to become faster or better at getting open.

Point #3. The Chargers defense is very tough when they get ahead, so the Patriots can't let that happen.

Here's a stat for you: the Chargers had 61 sacks on the year, and only 7 of them came when they were behind (that's 11.4% of the team sacks). Need more? NFL sack leader Shawne Merriman had 17 sacks this year, and only 0.5 of them came with his team behind (3%). So San Diego's sack machine defense doesn't really help the team come from behind as much as it seals a victory once they are ahead. To counter this, the Patriots simply can't let the score get out of hand. If they get down by 14 or 17, the Chargers pass rush will be a-comin', and if the regular season games are any indication, there might be no stopping them.


A) Both the Patriots and Chargers were 2-2 against playoff teams this year. But the Chargers went 5-0 and the Patriots went 4-1 against common opponents (Denver, Buffalo, Tennessee, & Cincinnati).

B) Marty Schottenheimer has taken the #1 seed to the playoffs three other times, and twice his teams lost their first playoff game.

C) Looking for a fast start? The Patriots scored first in 10 of 16 regular season games (4 times on their first drive of the game). Looking for a faster start? The Chargers scored first in 11 of 16 regular season games (7 times on their first drive of the game).


The Patriots have their work cut out for them this Sunday. The Chargers are 8-0 at home (though the Pats are 7-1 on the road) and the game is on grass, where the Patriots are only 15-11 over the past two years. The great San Diego running game is up against the #7 running defense of New England, but that is probably still advantage San Diego. And the Patriots safeties against the Chargers tight ends looks like a significant mismatch in favor of San Diego. The only plus is that the Charger wideouts shouldn't do much damage against the secondary.

On the other side, the Patriots won't be able to pound the ball unless they can throw it first. San Diego is too big up front to push them around; so they need to pass to open up the run. If the Pats can get a few long completions early (or even pass interference calls), it could loosen up the defense enough to spring the running game. I also expect they will run some mis-direction screens -- just to slow down the pass rush. It is a daunting task, but not impossible, and it is where Tom Brady's playoff experience will be the most critical.

The game could go either way, but I think the winning margin will be 10 points or more. If I had to call it, I'd go with the Patriots 27, Chargers 17. But please do not gamble any money on this game. It could just as easily be a 20-point blowout for the Chargers.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Tully Banta-Cain is tied for the NFL lead with two sacks in the playoffs.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Of course Philip Rivers against Bill Belichick is a mismatch. I just hope Antonio Gates against James Sanders isn't one."

Keep the faith,

- Scott



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