FOXBORO — There are many different ways to break down the Patriots-Chargers AFC divisional round matchup.
The Patriots’ offensive line against edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, the Patriots’ secondary and how they matchup with the Chargers’ receivers, or even how the Chargers will limit the Patriots’ running backs in the passing game.
But, if there’s one key for the Patriots, it is keeping the Chargers in check on first and second down because they really, really struggle on third down.
It’s worth pointing out they have been so good on first and second down, they haven’t even had many third downs (177 third-down plays in the regular season, which were second-fewest in the NFL). The Chargers averaged 5.50 yards per play on third down in the regular season, which is really bad when the league average was 7.05 yards per play. If the Patriots defense can put the Chargers into a number of third-down plays, especially third-and-long, it has a great chance of winning the game.
Overall, the Chargers converted on 39 percent of their third downs, which was good for 16th in the league. Recently, it’s been a little worse, as in their last three games they have converted just 32 percent of their third downs, including 6-for-17 last week against the Ravens. This feeds into the Patriots defense’s success of late. In its last five games, opponents are converting just 26 percent of third-down plays.
At quarterback, Philip Rivers has been very poor. On third down this year, he is 79-for-138 (57.2 completion percentage) passing with 985 yards, eight touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 74.7 quarterback rating. The eight interceptions are the most in the entire league and the QB rating is 27th.
One of the biggest reasons the Chargers have avoided third downs is the success of running back Melvin Gordon. The running back averaged 5.1 yards per carry in the regular season, which certainly helped a great deal.
“He’s big, strong, fast, got good vision, he’s hard to tackle, he’s got good patience, uses his blockers well,” Bill Belichick said Wednesday. “He’s got good speed so he can attack from sideline to sideline, but he gets downhill, he’s tough in line, he’s a tough guy to tackle. He’s got breakaway speed, he’s got home run ability, so he’s had a bunch of big plays – some in the running game, some in the passing game, screen passes, check-down routes, end routes. So, whenever he gets the ball, it doesn’t really matter how he gets it once he gets it.”
With that being said, the Patriots may be catching a break with Gordon not being 100 percent for the game. The running back suffered a knee injury against the Ravens and this comes after suffering an injury to his other knee in December. Since returning from missing three games, in his last three outings Gordon has averaged just 3.17 yards per carry and looks like a completely different player. This obviously impacts the Chargers offense in avoiding third downs and also increases the odds of third-and-long plays.
As was shown earlier, that is bad news for the Chargers offense and would be great news for the Patriots defense.
Sure, the Chargers could just scrap the run and have Rivers throw a ton on first and second down, but that would make them one-dimensional and the Patriots defense thrives off that. It would allow them to devote all its attention to defending the pass and Bill Belichick and Co. are more than capable of taking that away if it’s the only thing to worry about.
Getting off the field on third down will limit the Chargers’ points and the Patriots offense seems capable of winning a low-scoring game.
Don’t waste time picking through the matchup, this game will come down to third down. If the Patriots can win first and second down, they have a very good chance of winning third down and the game. If they struggle on early downs and third down, it could be an early offseason.
Let the game begin.