The Chargers opened Sunday’s AFC divisional playoff game against the New England Patriots in their usual “cover-three” zone defense. For long stretches of the first half in frigid Gillette Stadium, the scheme looked more like a cover-none.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, the 41-year-old veteran who was supposedly slowed by age and a nagging knee injury, sliced and diced his way through the Chargers defense with such little resistance in the first 30 minutes that the Patriots scored 31 unanswered points en route to an easy 41-28 victory.
When Brady wasn’t freezing the Chargers’ second-level defenders with play-action fakes and burning them with passes to slot receiver Julian Edelman over the middle, he was dumping screen passes or check-down throws to running back James White in the flat.
With the secondary sufficiently softened by Brady’s quick strikes and the Chargers’ front four keying in on the pass-rush, Patriots running back Sony Michel found enough room to rush for 129 yards and three touchdowns in 24 carries.
By the time Brady embraced Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers after the game, the Patriots quarterback had amassed 343 yards passing, completing 34 of 44 attempts, to lead New England to next Sunday’s AFC championship game at Kansas City.
“That’s what Tom Brady does — he executes, he does his job,” Chargers safety Adrian Phillips said. “He’s like a machine. It wasn’t doing anything different or anything that was really throwing us off. Their offense as a whole just did their job, and we didn’t as a defense.”
White caught 15 passes for 97 yards, tying former Philadelphia Eagles running back Darren Sproles’ playoff record for most receptions in a single game in the Super Bowl era, and Edelman caught nine passes for 151 yards.
The Chargers did not sack Brady once, and they had only two quarterback hits. Brady was so accurate and his receivers had so much room to operate that the Chargers registered only one pass breakup.
“He did a really good job of getting rid of the ball quickly,” Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa said of Brady. “Every single time I won a pass rush, and I did win a few of them, the ball was gone.
“We were talking [with] each other and I’d say, ‘Stop getting rid of the ball so fast.’ He said, ‘Stop getting to me so fast, and I won’t have to get rid of it.’ Every time you went to rush, you look up and the ball is gone. It’s demoralizing.”
A week ago, Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was praised for devising a “7-Eleven” scheme in which seven defensive backs and four down linemen bottled up the Ravens for three quarters and sacked speedy and elusive quarterback Lamar Jackson seven times in a 23-17 wild-card win.
The Chargers started Sunday with the same smaller unit, using safeties Jahleel Addae and Phillips as inside linebackers and Desmond King at slot cornerback, but they quickly transitioned to the more traditional nickel and dime packages, with bigger linebackers Kyle Emanuel and Hayes Pullard in the middle.
They even scrapped their zone defense for man-to-man coverage late in the second quarter, forcing their first three-and-out and first punt after the Patriots scored touchdowns on their first four possessions.
Even that positive turned into a negative, as King, the All-Pro return man, muffed the punt and Patriots linebacker Albert McClellan recovered at the Chargers’ 35-yard line. Four plays later, Michel scored on a five-yard run for a 35-7 lead with 1 minute 43 seconds left in the first half.
“That’s tough, but Des has done a great job all season,” Addae said. “You can’t pin one play on him. He’s All-Pro at that position. He’s won us games there. So when one person makes a mistake, we have to have his back.”
The Patriots, who advanced to their eighth straight AFC title game, had an extra week of rest and preparation, and it showed in offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ game plan.
“They did a great job of disguising, of motioning, of making stuff look different than what we saw on film,” safety Derwin James said. “And when you’re not stopping the run, the play-action usually gets open. That got the linebackers up a little bit, and Brady was just putting it in there every time.
“We weren’t stopping the run. We weren’t stopping the pass. That makes it hard. They were the better team today.”
Brady is known for his ability to identify coverage, anticipate blitzes, find the soft spots and seams in the secondary and pick apart defenses with his precision passing. Could the Chargers have played right into his hands by opening in a zone?
“No, we’ve done a fine job of playing zone all season, that’s what we do,” Addae said. “He just had a good game. Give credit where credit is due.”
The Chargers stuck with their man-to-man coverage in the second half and began blitzing more. Though they were unable to pressure Brady or hit him much, they did affect him a bit, limiting the Patriots to 151 total yards and six points in the second half.
But New England had 347 yards and 24 first downs in the first half and held possession for 20:11 compared to 9:49 for the Chargers. The game was essentially over in the second quarter.