FOXBORO — This is what the playoffs are all about.
Sunday’s AFC divisional round game at Gillette Stadium will feature the NFL’s best home team in the Patriots, and the NFL’s best road team in the Chargers.
New England was the only team in the NFL to go undefeated at home this year and averaged 32.9 points per game in those contests, while allowing just 16.6. Meanwhile, Los Angeles went unbeaten outside of L.A. as it dropped three games at home and then its only road loss came against the Rams. The Chargers were 7-1 on the road (8-1 including the playoffs) and were one of just three teams to win more than five road games all year. In those nine road games, the Chargers scored 27.2 points per game, while allowing 19.6.
The Patriots averaged the most points per game at home in the AFC, while the Chargers averaged the second-most points per game on the road.
It’s a classic strength vs. strength game, but recent history in these situations favors the Patriots.
Of the last seven NFL teams to have at least seven wins on the road during the regular season, only three have advanced beyond the divisional round. But stretching things out, it’s not quite an advantage. Since 2003, 21 teams have recorded at least seven road wins and of those teams, 13 made it past divisional round.
The biggest comparison to the Chargers this year may be the 2014 Cowboys because they were one of the few teams with at least seven road wins to have to play a divisional round road game. After winning the NFC East at 12-4, Dallas beat the Lions on wild card weekend, but then fell 26-21 in Green Bay, which was their first road loss all season.
Regardless of what history says, the Patriots know the Chargers will be very tough — even making their second cross-country trip in as many weeks.
“They have great leadership over there, and all the things that I’ve heard about Coach [Anthony] Lynn are nothing but positive things about the type of leader that he is and obviously they have a lot of belief in what they’re doing,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said Monday. “I think it says a lot about the mental toughness of their football team, to be able to go on the road, hostile environments, essentially playing a game at 10 a.m. West Coast time this past weekend and being ready to go. They’ve been a great road team all year long, as you said, so I think that requires a great deal of mental toughness. They’ve got the formula – they run the ball, they cover kicks, they stop the run, so they’ve got physical toughness, as well. You really got to tip your hat to those guys.”
Also in the Patriots’ favor is their own history. Of the two years the team has gone undefeated at home under Bill Belichick (2007 and 2016), they made it to the Super Bowl. Not to mention, Philip Rivers is 1-7 against the Patriots in his career, but the lone win came in 2008 when Tom Brady was out for the year.
Strictly on the field, it won’t be as easy as it seems.
The Chargers are a very, very good team. In fact, no playoff team remaining ranks in the top 10 for pass offense, rush offense, pass defense and rush defense by DVOA except the Chargers. Clearly, this was the worst possible matchup for the Patriots as the Chargers will challenge them in all areas.
Los Angeles has proven it can win in all kinds of ways. Shootout? Let Rivers and Melvin Gordon go to work. A defensive slog? Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram can do their thing. Although the Chiefs were the best team the Patriots faced all year, the Chargers may be more balanced and do more things well.
“This is obviously a great football team that has played well on the road all year and it is going to be our biggest challenge in all phases, there’s no doubt about that," Brady said Monday on Mut & Callahan.
“We’re going to have to be able to have a great complementary game,” he added. “There’s no one phase of our team that is going to be able to carry us. It is going to take every player, every coach on the roster to pull this one out.”
There’s no doubt it will be a huge challenge for the Patriots, but a look at past history should make them breathe a little easier.