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Scouting the Matchup: Tough, tight battle on tap



Advantage: Chargers

The Patriots enter the postseason having run for 404 yards in their last two games. New England gained 273 yards on the ground against the Bills in Week 16 and 131 during a victory over the Jets in Week 17. Rookie Sony Michel hasn't been the best at getting the tough yards but did run for 931 yards and six touchdowns on 209 carries this season, an average of 4.5 yards per carry. He has four 100-yard games. Although used more as a receiver, James White is next with 425 yards and five touchdowns on 94 carries. The Chargers finished the regular season ranked ninth in the NFL against the run. Los Angeles limited a run-first Baltimore team to 90 yards on the ground on 23 rushing attempts in last Sunday's 23-17 victory. Most of that yardage came on scrambles by quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Patriots will likely try to find success running against the Chargers packages that include six and seven defensive backs, but L.A. has been effective in stopping the run even with the lighter personnel.


Advantage: Chargers

Although the Patriots passing game hasn't been as effective this season as it had been in recent years, New England still finished eighth in the league in pass offense (266.1 yards per game). Quarterback Tom Brady threw for 29 touchdowns and was intercepted 11 times. It was a subpar season for tight end Rob Gronkowski, who finished fourth on the team in receiving yards (682), behind Julian Edelman (74 receptions for 850 yards), James White (87 receptions for 751 yards) and Josh Gordon (40 receptions for 720 yards). Gronkowski had three TD receptions this season, down from eight a year ago. The Chargers were ninth against the pass this season, allowing an average of 236.3 yards per game. They have a talented secondary with corners Casey Hayward, Desmond King and Michael Davis as well as a solid pass rush with Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. Los Angeles had seven sacks in Sunday's playoff victory against the Ravens.


Advantage: Chargers

The Chargers ranked 15th in the league in rushing offense during the regular season but were without leading rusher Melvin Gordon for four games because of injuries. Gordon was ninth among AFC rushers during the regular season with 885 yards and 10 touchdowns but he averaged over 5 yards per carry. Austin Ekeler is a solid No. 2 back and ran for 554 yards and three touchdowns on 106 carries during the regular season, an average of 5.2 yards per carry. The Patriots were 11th in the NFL in rushing defense but ranked 29th in rushing yards allowed per play. New England has surrendered at least 104 yards on the ground in three of their last four games, including 189 yards in a loss to Miami. Opponents rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the Patriots five losses this season and have struggled stopping the run against balanced attacks.


Advantage: Patriots

Los Angeles quarterback Philip Rivers was fifth in passer rating this season (105.5) and averaged 8.5 yards per pass attempt. That 8.5-yard average is his best since 2010. He completed 68.3 percent of his passes and spread the ball around, as five Chargers, including running backs Gordon and Ekeler, had at least 400 receiving yards. The 37-year-old has lost some arm strength and may have trouble driving the ball in cold and possibly windy Foxborough. Keenan Allen led the team in receptions (97) and receiving yards (1,196), but wide receiver Mike Williams has a team-high 10 touchdowns and became the first Chargers receiver since Tony Martin in 1996 (14) to have 10 or more. New England ranked 22nd in passing yards allowed per game but ninth in passing yards per play. Trey Flowers leads New England in sacks with 7.5, a career high. Rookie J.C. Jackson has emerged as a playmaker in the Patriots secondary, and the group finished the season playing its best football of the season.


Advantage: Patriots

Rookie Michael Badgley made 15 of his 16 field goal attempts after the Chargers cut Caleb Sturgis in November. Badgley made five of his six kicks against Baltimore last week but did have one kick blocked. Desmond King averaged 13.8 yards per punt return during the regular season and had a 73-yard return for a touchdown. He had a 33-yard punt return and took a kickoff back 72 yards last weekend against the Ravens. Punter Donnie Jones hasn't had a strong season. He had a 38-yard net average during the regular season and had only 15 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. He also had one blocked against the Ravens a week ago. New England has struggled in kick coverage and finished the regular season ranked 26th in both punt-return average and kickoff-return average. Cordarrelle Patterson is averaging 28.3 yards per kickoff return and returned one kick for a TD this season.


Advantage: Patriots

Perhaps the biggest hurdle the Chargers will have to overcome is winning at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots are 8-0 this season. New England is the only NFL team that was unbeaten at home during the regular season. It should be noted that Los Angeles played some of its best football on the road this season. The Chargers were 7-1 away from home and then won at Baltimore in the wild card round. Their only road loss came against the Rams in Week 2, so the Chargers are actually unbeaten when boarding a plane – including a "home" win in London against the Titans. New England has a decided edge in playoff experience. Last Sunday's victory over Baltimore was the Chargers first playoff game since 2013. A strong start may have a lot to do with the outcome. Although Los Angeles had a 6-0 lead after one quarter last week, the Chargers have been outscored 43-20 in the first quarter of their last six games.

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