Against Patriots, Chargers looking to join the national conversation with a win
They aren’t favored, the Chargers arriving at the divisional playoff round as something of a relative unknown nationally.
The franchise hadn’t been to the postseason since the 2013 season and is attempting to reach the AFC title game for just the second time since the mid-1990s.
And they are about to face a New England team that has played in the conference final seven consecutive years.
“The Patriots, basically, they’re America’s favorite team,” Chargers safety Jahleel Addae said. “Some people would argue the [Dallas] Cowboys. But they’re right there with them. That’s one reason we’re excited about this.”
After an 11-5 regular season, New England has been deemed suspect and is just a four-point favorite Sunday. The Patriots hadn’t been favored at home in the postseason by fewer than six points since Jan. 10, 2010.
That time, they were favored by four over Baltimore in the wild-card round and lost 33-14.
But, where others see issues, the Chargers see same old New England.
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“I see a team winning and figuring out ways to win,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “I don’t see their demise at all. I see a good football team. … They’ve been there so many times. They know how to win this time of year.”
Lynn doesn’t agree with those who contend that age is slowing down quarterback Tom Brady, whose passer rating of 97.7 dropped him to 12th in the NFL this season.
At 41, Brady still passed for 4,355 yards (47 more than the Chargers’ Philip Rivers), with 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
“His experience matters because he knows what he’s looking at,” Lynn said. “He can make changes at the line of scrimmage, and he can get that offense in the right plays so they’re not fighting uphill all day.”
Meanwhile, the Chargers will be busy trying to prove to everyone outside their fan base that they belong here. Here and, perhaps, beyond.
“We can’t be a favorite because we don’t do this often,” defensive lineman Damion Square said. “We’re new to this. It’s been a while since this organization has been in this position.”
Disguising the defense
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley wouldn’t disclose his plans for Sunday regarding the seven-defensive-back scheme that worked so well against Baltimore in the Chargers’ wild-card win.
Bradley employed four defensive linemen and no one else who weighed more than 215 pounds in the “7-Eleven” alignment.
One potential matchup problem presented by New England is tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds.
Gronkowski has been slowed by a bad back this season but still figures to be a challenge.
“It’s unique, and it presents different matchup problems for an offense,” Brady said of the Chargers’ defensive back-heavy scheme. “Those guys … play tough and they play against the run. They’ve got the speed and quickness to play against the pass. They’re so disciplined.”
Hunter Henry’s possible return Sunday is another reminder that Antonio Gates is likely closing in on his final moments as a Charger.
When this season ends, Gates figures to be done after 16 seasons with the franchise.
He wasn’t expected to return in 2018 until Henry tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a practice in May.
“He’s had an incredible career,” New England coach Bill Belichick said of Gates. “He’s never covered really. No matter where the defender is, there’s a place where you can put the ball where he can get it and the defender can’t. … I’ll be glad when he hangs ’em up and we don’t have to cover him.”
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna
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