Tomase: Lights out for Patriots? Not so fast, because Chargers look beatable

John Tomase
January 07, 2019 - 10:09 am

That's it?

After the Colts upset the Texans on Saturday, all I read about for 24 hours was the nightmare scenario unfolding in Foxboro.

Andrew Luck's pluck meant the Patriots wouldn't draw Houston in the first round, denying Bill Belichick another opportunity to demonstrate how effortlessly he prunes the delicate shoots of his coaching tree labeled, "Bill O'Brien."

Instead, the Pats would be left with either the Ravens -- who have already proven they can win playoff games in Foxboro under head coach John Harbaugh -- or the Chargers, the widely lauded Best Team in the AFC with a loaded roster and hungry quarterback.

Then the Ravens and Chargers squared off on Sunday, and here's what I saw: the Chargers settled for a bunch of field goals before allowing a shell-shocked rookie quarterback to start winging it all over the field while nearly completing a miracle comeback.

One minute Lamar Jackson risked the first negative passing attack in playoff history, the next he threw for 149 yards and two touchdowns during a furious fourth quarter rally.

It ultimately fell short on an unseasonably warm Baltimore afternoon when Jackson committed his final mistake by losing a strip sack to seal San Diego's 23-17 victory, but there was little, outside of a ferocious Chargers pass rush, that should lead us to believe the Patriots can't dispatch L.A. and make a record eighth straight trip to the AFC title game.

San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers, who has never beaten Tom Brady in seven tries, played the role of Captain Checkdown on Sunday, completing 22 passes for only 160 yards and no scores. The Ravens may boast one of the league's best defenses, but Rivers still looked like Kirk Cousins, the Vikings QB who dumped it off on virtually every throw against the Pats during an uninspiring 24-10 loss.

Rivers is coming off perhaps his best season, with over 4,000 yards and a QB rating of 105.5, but he also threw six interceptions in his final three games. He'll be playing on Sunday in what could be 20-degree temperatures and snow, and he has thrown nearly as many interceptions (9) as touchdowns (11) in his playoff career.

He also contributed to the Chargers' inability to salt away a game that seemed well in hand, raising questions about L.A.'s readiness to come into Foxboro and secure a W.

The Chargers were terrible finishers on Sunday. Imagine if they pull a similar 50-minute effort against the Pats? Brady's no rookie. He won't let them off the hook like Jackson did, and he won't make the same unforced errors, either.

As flawed as the Patriots may be, their defense has improved considerably in the second half, with five of six opponents limited to 17 points or fewer since the bye. Is it that hard to imagine a scenario where they're outplayed for much of the game but keep it close before being saved by Brady's magic?

Now the Joey Bosa-Melvin Ingram conundrum is real. The Chargers recorded seven sacks on Sunday with pressure right where Brady hates it -- directly up the middle. Keeping Brady upright will be a legitimate concern, though he's not going to dance into as many sacks as Jackson did.

But the Pats are a different team at home, where they're 8-0. They're also a different team in the playoffs, where their streak of reaching AFC title games stretches so far back, Rex Ryan was coaching the Jets the last time the Pats watched from their couches.

So forgive me if I'm not sold on the Chargers as some unbeatable juggernaut. They secured a solid road win on Sunday in a game they nonetheless nearly blew, and a similar effort against a real quarterback will send the artists formerly known as San Diego home for the winter.

Lamar Jackson was a deer. Tom Brady is the headlights. New England's season isn't over yet. Not by a longshot.