FOXBOROUGH — Thanks to a historic first-half performance, the Patriots punched their ticket to an NFL record eighth consecutive AFC Championship Game after a 41-28 win over the Chargers.
The talk all week was about how the Chargers roster was more talented than New England’s, even I fell for that, but the Patriots controlled the action from start to finish, and the final score doesn’t do this beatdown justice.
The biggest miscue by us so-called experts was underestimating the coaching mismatch between these two teams; Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and Brian Flores out-coached the Chargers’ staff in every single facet of the game sniffing out all of LA’s tendencies and weaknesses to craft a masterful game plan that the players then executed to perfection.
And to the players’ credit, they took that plan and ran with it, especially along the line of scrimmage where the Patriots won this game in the trenches with an exceptional performance by the offensive line and a pass rush that lived in Philip Rivers’ lap all day long.
As a result, the Patriots are now one step closer to Atlanta, and although Kansas City and Arrowhead Stadium are a behemoth, New England deserves praise for taking the Chargers to the woodshed at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Below, we’ll go over ten things we learned from the Patriots’ dominated victory over Los Angeles:
1. Patriots’ Offensive Game Plan a Stroke of Genius From Josh McDaniels
The win over the Chargers was a good day for Josh McDaniels defenders like myself.
No, I won’t take a victory lap for McDaniels whose playing calling did all the talking in Sunday’s win.
The Patriots’ opening drive was masterful as the Pats OC had the perfect script to attack the LA defense that led to a team postseason record 35 points in the first half. Let’s get to a few examples:
As we all knew, the Chargers stuck to what they do on Sunday in their Seattle-style defense, and McDaniels had them sized up from the start with three main ideas leading the way: attacking the flats, flood concepts, and crossing routes which are all well-known single-high beaters.
At the end of the first quarter, the Patriots got another first down to Edelman by attacking a vulnerability in flat in a cover-3 scheme. The Pats sent wide receiver Phillip Dorsett on a clear-out route up the sideline. That forced the boundary corner to run downfield with Dorsett, and Edelman cut underneath Dorsett’s route to the vacated area. With the slot corner spot-dropping, he was out-leveraged to the sideline and had Edelman beats him there easily.
The nemesis of the cover-3 defense is also the crossing route where it’s difficult for the post safety in the middle of the field to run across the formation to stick with the receiver. The Pats sent Edelman on a number of intermediate crossers over the middle, and here, he got a free release at the line of scrimmage, and the slot defender allows him to run across the field unimpeded toward the post safety who stands no chance in that foot race. Easy completion for Brady.
Finally, McDaniels also dialed up some excellent flood concepts that overloaded zones making it difficult for the defense to account for everyone.
On Gronk’s lone catch of the game, The Patriots ran a three-man route concept out of an empty formation. They sent Edelman on a slant from inside, Hogan on a corner route from the outside slot, and Gronk ran a slant from the perimeter off of Hogan’s route while following Edelman. The route design left nobody underneath Gronk or in front of him to prevent the completion, and the boundary corner broke his assignment to try to chase him down to no avail.
Speaking about the performance of the coaching staff Edelman told me, “[Josh] McDaniels, Chaddie O [Chad O’Shea], Scar, Ives [Ivan Fears], Nick [Caley], both Nick’s [Caley and Casserio], Cole [Popovich]; those guys put in a lot of hours on this stuff. I thought I wanted to coach after [retirement] until I saw that, and I want to have a life. They work countless hours to put guys in the best situations and put guys in positions to succeed, and we were able to do it today.”
For those keeping score at home, that’s every coach on the offensive staff plus Caserio the Pats’ Director of Player Personnel and Edelman made it a point to name everyone.
2. Patriots Defense Takes Advantage of LA’s Weak Offensive Line
Along with the performance of the offensive line, the Patriots won this game defensively on the line of scrimmage by putting the minds of the Chargers offensive lineman in a blender, and that was the plan all along.
“Everyone that plays him [Rivers] knows that if he’s able to step up in the pocket and throw comfortably, it’s going to be a long day, so we did that to make it uncomfortable for him and get him out of his element,” said Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler.
Trey Flowers added, “we understood that we had to get him off his spot; not allow him to be comfortable in the pocket, not allow him to step up because he’s [Rivers] a great quarterback. So we had to pressure him.”
The Patriots rattled the Chargers’ offensive line and Rivers by doing what they’ve been doing in the second half of the season; disguising blitzes and running games or stunts with the defensive line.
On this third down stop, the Patriots brought six rushers at Rivers on a cover-0 blitz meaning there was no deep safety. The rush initially comes from the middle with the linebackers stacking the box and running at the offensive line, and then safety Patrick Chung came on a bit of a delayed blitz from the slot to force the ball out and Rivers threw behind his intended receiver giving Devin McCourty a chance to make a play on the ball.
The Patriots also called their fair share of line stunts or games, one of which led to a sack for Trey Flowers. As you can see, Flowers wraps around Adam Butler’s interior rush unblocked to take down Rivers.
During the regular season, the Chargers’ offensive line was 30th in Pro Football Focus’ pass-blocking rankings, and the Pats were well aware of it on Sunday taking full advantage of that weakness.
3. Patriots’ Offensive Line Erases Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram
All week long the Patriots’ offensive line listened to the “experts” hype up Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and the Chargers’ pass rush.
On Sunday, they flipped the script on a terrific defensive line winning their one-on-one battles across the board which, outside of coaching, was the reason New England is advancing.
As this reel shows, both tackles, Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon, thoroughly dominated their matchups with Bosa and Ingram by playing their game and bullying the two Chargers stars. Both tackles credited film study and the coaching staff which helped them learn as much as they could about one of the best pass-rush tandems in the league, but as Brown put it to me, this was as much about them executing what they do in their techniques than it was about game planning.
I asked Brown what the key was to slowing down Bosa and he said, “playing my game, what I do every week. Week in and week out. Day in and day out. As long as I do that, I ain’t worried about nobody.”
In all, Brady wasn’t sacked in the game, and the Chargers only registered two quarterback hits as a defense.
4. The Chargers Secondary Can’t Cover Julian Edelman
If you go to the Gillette Stadium field tomorrow, you might still see Julian Edelman carving up the Chargers defense.
Other than McDaniels, Edelman might be the Patriot that I’ve defended the most this season as people dish takes about how he has lost a step and is dropping passes at an alarming rate, both of which were widely overblown narratives.
Well, the Chargers could not cover Edelman in this one as he dominated with nine catches for 151 yards in the win with 107 of those yards coming in the first half explosion.
All season long, Edelman has been the Patriots’ most consistent receiver and his ability to win against both man and zone coverage separates him from anyone else on the roster.
McDaniels did a great job of motioning Edelman around the formation pre-snap to get him advantageous matchups as he was the critical component to many of the single-high beaters that the Patriots ran on Sunday.
Edelman’s craftiness and effort were on full display as he worked his way open and created yards after the catch with hard-nosed running.
Here, the Patriots have Edelman chip and then release into the flat to sell the run fake. After the catch, it’s all Edelman as he fights through two Charger defenders to pick up the first down.
If you thought Edelman was slowing down, he made you look silly on Sunday.
5. Tom Brady a Silent Assassin in 28th Career Playoff Win
Tom Brady wasn’t the headliner of Sunday’s win over the Chargers, and in a way, that’s a good thing. The coaches film will tell the whole story, but on initial viewing, it felt like Brady was a quiet assassin finding all the holes in Los Angeles’s zone coverages and executing the game plan to perfection. Some might want to see the “wow” throws that Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes puts on tape every week, but Brady has always prioritized efficiency and winning over highlight reels.
Although, Brady still made a few throws to remind us that the 41-year-old can still sling it on Sunday.
The best of them all was a dart over the middle to Julian Edelman that gained 35-yards, the Pats’ longest passing play of the day. Edelman ran a double-move where he stuttered at the top of the route like he was heading outside before getting vertical up the seam, and Brady threw a missile to beat the defender diving to break up the pass. If you had concerns about Brady’s arm strength, don’t worry.
The completion to Edelman was a great throw, but where Brady really made his hay on Sunday was with his ability to anticipate the throwing lanes against the Chargers’ zone coverages and manipulate the defense with his eyes.
On this 12-yard completion, Brady starts by looking left, and Gronk runs a clear out through the middle of the defense, and the two actions by the Pats stars free up the passing lane to Julian Edelman underneath.
Brady has been criticized this season for his field vision and mechanics, but both seemed to be on GOAT level against the Chargers.
6. Patriots’ Secondary Holds Its Own Against Keenan Allen, Mike Williams
Things started out rocky for the Pats secondary when All-Pro Stephon Gilmore allowed a 43-yard touchdown catch to Keenan Allen on a busted coverage, one that Gilmore took the blame for, but the rest of the game was all New England like everything else on Sunday.
Allen’s touchdown grab was his only catch until late in the game, and Rivers was six of 15 for 78 yards in the first half excluding that play; good for five yards per attempt and a 57.1 rating.
Gilmore drew the matchup with Allen for most of the day and said after the game that his strategy was to make it difficult on the Pro Bowler to release downfield since he knew how proficient Allen was at the top of his routes.
On this third down play, Gilmore was in press man coverage on Allen, and you can see that strategy take hold as he beats him up throughout his steam not allowing Allen to get a free release at the line of scrimmage. Rivers looked Allen’s way at first, but Gilmore’s coverage made it impossible to throw that direction, and the pressure eventually closed on him.
Along with Gilmore, rookie JC Jackson had another strong performance tracking Chargers wideout Mike Williams for most of the day.
Williams is a terrific receiver, someone that has impressed me this week, and was the only Charger skill player that showed up on Sunday.
However, Jackson still held his own and played his typical brand of physical press coverage to slow down the much bigger Williams.
Here, you can see Jackson jamming Williams down the sideline and break up a pass with some nifty ball skills on third down.
We’ll see how things look on the coaches film, but the initial viewing suggests that it was an excellent team effort for the defense with the rush and coverage working in unison.
7. Patriots’ Diverse Running Game on Full Display
Patriots rookie Sony Michel became the fifth player in team postseason history to eclipse the 125-yard rushing mark in a game in the victory over LA.
Like their play in pass protection, the Patriots’ offensive line and tight ends were a significant reason why Michel had so much success on the ground, but the rookie helped out as well.
Michel’s 40-yard run in the second quarter was his longest of the season, and it’s a perfect example of the completeness of the Patriots’ running game.
On the play, the Patriots appear to be zone blocking with Shaq Mason turning out his man and Gronk and Marcus Cannon combo blocking the edge to create the initial hole for Michel. At that point, Michel remains patient behind his blocks probing the offensive line for a rushing lane, and when he finds it, he hits it and explodes into the secondary where he gets a great block from center David Andrews downfield to spring him. The Chargers’ defensive backs chased him down from behind, and I think he still has one more gear we haven’t seen this season, but maybe that’s not giving the speed of the NFL enough credit.
We saw the Pats OL zone block, and now they’re going to use a gap scheme to spring Michel for a 12-yard gain on a wham scheme. Andrews demolishes nose tackle Brandon Mebane, and the scheme allows right tackle Marcus Cannon to climb to the second level as Develin takes on the defensive lineman in the hole. Michel sees Andrews win his block, and with some great vision cuts behind his center to land another explosive run.
What makes the Patriots’ rushing attack so unique and productive is its diversity; they can hit you with so many different types of blocking schemes and use the jet sweeps to come at you from different angles.
Wham schemes, counter, power lead, inside zone, outside zone, split zone, wide zone; they can do them all, and that’s a testament to offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and the talent along the OL.
8. Gronk’s Blocking Draws Praise From Teammates and Coaches
In a game where he only had one catch, Gronk was hugely impactful as both a receiver and a blocker. In the passing game, as illustrated by the Edelman catch in the Brady section, he was clearing out space for others and even helped out in some situations in pass protection with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.
However, Gronk was at his best in the running game where he was flat-out mauling Charger defenders and made Ingram eat his lunch on a few key plays.
For example, on Rex Burkhead’s six-yard touchdown run Gronk blew up Ingram at the line of scrimmage on a double-team block with left tackle Trent Brown and then climbed to the second level to seal off the linebacker who was the last line of defense. Combination blocks like that one were a regular occurrence for Gronk in this one, and he was stellar at the point of attack.
Brady vouched for his tight end’s blocking abilities saying, “he’s a great blocker. I think that’s something that goes maybe a little under the radar with his skill set, but he’s one of the most dominant blocking tight ends in the league.
9. Albert McClellan the Sneaky-Great Pickup of the Season
If you’re looking for that under-the-radar midseason pick up this season, it’s without a doubt special teamer Albert McClellan.
The Ravens cut McClellan in October, and the Pats scooped him up to help bolster a struggling special teams unit.
Since then, he has blocked two punts and come up with a massive fumble recovery to give the Patriots a short field leading to another seven points.
Baltimore probably had reason to cut McClellan, but he has turned into a special teams monster in New England.
10. Play of the Game: Phillip Dorsett’s 15-Yard Touchdown
This week’s play of the game goes to Phillip Dorsett for his 15-yard touchdown grab from Tom Brady. Here’s Dorsett on the play:
“Me and Jules were in the stack, and we were talking about it the whole week, we knew that they might mess it up. Once they hesitated, I just took it, and I knew the ball was coming because I knew Tom was going to see me.”
Dorsett then added that he saw Chargers cornerback Desmond King pointing out of confusion right before the snap, so he immediately got vertical to keep King on his heels.
Chalk this one up to another great example of film study by the Patriots.
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