It’s been more than a decade since the Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots met in a postseason game. But the quarterbacks of both franchises are still the same as Philip Rivers looks to enact revenge on now 41-year-old Tom Brady.
It was a shaky Brady who bested the Chargers 11 years ago, a 21-12 win in the AFC Championship Game that took the Pats to the precipice of a perfect season. (They lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl, wiping out an 18-0 start). Brady was far from his average self, throwing three interceptions for the only time during a year he was named NFL MVP.
That offered Rivers an opportunity. But he was hurt, playing with a torn ACL and virtually without future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson. The end result wasn’t pretty; two picks, failing to lead his team into the end zone and no signs of life in the fourth quarter.
It was a wasted opportunity for an inconsistent franchise that hasn’t made it back to the conference title game since. And the Chargers' quarterback, one of the league’s best you never hear about, was left to deal with a brokenhearted city and a move while Brady earned Super Bowls and accolades.
Can Rivers, who had his best season in five years at age 37, finally come full circle and vanquish those playoff demons? The Chargers, despite being the wild-card team, come in with the better record and more momentum. But the Patriots, an aging team, are rested from a bye week that provided opportunities for Brady and banged-up tight end Rob Gronkowski to heal up. A crisp, cold day at Foxborough (the forecast calls for 29 degrees) should also put the Chargers to the test in cold weather.
Eleven years later, these two teams are set up for another postseason classic.
AFC Divisional Playoff: Los Angeles at New England
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 13 at 1:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -4
Three Things To Watch
1. Which Tom Brady will show up on Sunday?
There’s no doubt Brady, at age 41, took a step back a year after winning NFL MVP. How much of that is his fault and how much is due to injuries or suspensions for top weapons like Rob Gronkowski, Josh Gordon, and Julian Edelman? The answer, as with most things in life, lies somewhere in the middle. A step back for Brady is like earning a 95 instead of a 100 on your history test. But history tells us it’s this quarterback that needs to be on top of his game for the Patriots to stay successful in the playoffs.
Brady did have his best game of the season with little to play for in the Week 17 finale against the Jets. His first four-touchdown performance of the year though came against a team who fired its head coach right after the final whistle.
Overall, Brady’s stats declined across the board. His 11 interceptions were the most for him since 2013; the QB rating (97.7) dipped below 100 for the first time since '14. His five losses (albeit one on a bizarre game-ending lateral vs. Miami) were the most for him as a starter since 2009.
But a look at the game film shows Brady also is simply missing throws. Some have speculated his left knee is hurt; the quarterback has shown up on the injury report with a “knee ailment” at times this season. Sacked just 21 times this season instead of 35 a year ago (during an MVP season), it’s clear Brady is trying to avoid taking hard hits to his body.
So which Brady will show up against the Chargers? The guy who threw for eight touchdowns and no interceptions in a masterful playoff performance just last year? The guy whose legend is built on that 27-10 playoff record and five Super Bowl rings? Or will we see the guy who was 13-for-24 for 126 yards, a touchdown and two picks against the lowly Buffalo Bills just three weeks ago?
We’re about to find out if Brady was treading lightly all season, from his missed offseason workouts to conservative play and saving the best for last. Or is 41 finally the age Father Time starts catching up?
2. Charging back up the L.A. offense
The Chargers faced the NFL’s best defense (at least in total yards allowed) last week against the Ravens. To a degree, it was understandable they struggled. But the success of new field goal kicker Mike Badgley, 15-for-16 during the regular season and 5-for-6 on Sunday, bailed them out. The team reached the end zone just once, a Melvin Gordon one-yard touchdown while Rivers threw for only 160 yards, a season low.
The problem is it’s not just a one-week aberration. After going the first 14 games with at least 200 passing yards, Rivers has fallen short of that mark three straight games. His numbers during that stretch have been anemic: just one touchdown, four picks and just 5.7 yards per attempt.
He’ll have an opportunity to get on track against a Patriots defense who ended the year just 22nd against the pass. But Rivers needs to create opportunities for an offense whose main back, Melvin Gordon III, has struggled. Since returning from a knee injury, he has yet to reach 50 yards in any game and averaged just 2.2 yards per carry against the Ravens.
Stepping back up to a level on par with Brady is crucial for Rivers, prone to turnovers. The Patriots have created more takeaways (28) than any team left in the AFC playoffs and know how to turn them into points. But more importantly, this game may be Rivers’ last best chance, armed with a 12-4 team that has beaten top seed Kansas City at home.
Frank Schwab from Yahoo! had a great article this week about Rivers’ legacy and how a Hall of Fame candidacy may be dependent on the Super Bowl. Just five of the 26 quarterbacks enshrined in Canton have gotten there without a title and all of them have arguably better resumes than Rivers.
For the Chargers, Gordon hasn’t looked the same since a knee injury kept him out for nearly a month and jeopardized several fantasy football championships. He’s still being limited in practice and will rely on Austin Ekeler to split time in the backfield.
But it’s the Patriots who needed the extra time. Gronkowski isn’t even on the injury report although any bone in his body looks capable of breaking in a moment’s notice. He’s been creaky most of the year, posting just 47 catches in 13 games and just two 100-yard performances.
Overall, the Patriots have just four players listed on the injury report, entering the weekend the healthiest they’ve been most of the season. It’s also an extra week for Brady to rest up and the offense to readjust without Gordon, suspended by the NFL for substance abuse. Cordarrelle Patterson is still nursing a knee injury but practiced in full this week and is expected to play.
X-Factor: Patriots at Home
The Patriots, earning a bye week for the 10th straight year have been phenomenal in Foxborough. They’re the only team to go undefeated at home this season and haven’t lost at Gillette Stadium to the Chargers since 2005.
This game will be billed as all about the quarterbacks, for good reason. But New England running back Sony Michel has had a respectable rookie season overshadowed by the greatness of Saquon Barkley and Baker Mayfield. With Melvin Gordon still on the mend, Michel's running should do enough to set up Tom Brady and pressure the Chargers' offense to keep pace.
Typically, that’s when Philip Rivers throws the ball to the other team in the postseason. It’s up to him to change the narrative and perhaps his future legacy with the Chargers.
Prediction: Patriots 28, Chargers 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.