The New England Patriots enter the Divisional Round of the 2018 NFL playoffs with at least 10 wins for the 16th straight season and the 17th time in the last 18 years. They finished 11-5 during the regular season to capture the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
The fact that an 11-5 record can be considered a down year for the Patriots is telling. New England hasn’t won fewer than 12 games since finishing 10-6 in 2009, earning at least 13 victories four times.
The Patriots appear more vulnerable this season. They will have their work cut out for them if they hope to reach their ninth Super Bowl in the past 18 years. This year’s postseason journey begins with a game against the best road team in the NFL, the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Chargers began the season with two losses in the first three weeks, but won 11 of their final 13 games. They finished an NFL-best 7-1 on the road and finished with the same record (12-4) as the AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs. Therefore, they are a huge threat to the host Patriots on Sunday.
Many consider Los Angeles to be the best team in the league from top to bottom, and that may very well be true. But you can never count out the Patriots, especially come playoff time. After all, they have won at least one game in 13 of their past 16 postseason appearances.
Here are three reasons the Patriots will beat the Chargers in the Divisional Round.
3. They Are Playing at Home
As was mentioned, the Chargers were the best road team in the NFL during the regular season. But the Patriots were the only team in the league to finish undefeated at home, giving them a decided advantage.
Of its eight home games, New England won six by double digits. The Patriots enjoyed an average margin of victory of 16.3 points at Gillette Stadium, winning two contests by 30-plus points. They also knocked off the then 5-0 Chiefs at home on Oct. 14 for perhaps their most impressive win of the season.
Furthermore, it’s extremely difficult to win at New England in January. Since the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era began, the Patriots are 19-3 at home in the playoffs.
On Sunday, they will get win number 20 against a franchise that has played just three playoff games this decade (including last week’s 23-17 win over the Baltimore Ravens). It will probably come down to the wire, but the Patriots will ultimately pull it out.
2. Tom Brady Is Still at Quarterback
When games do come down to the wire, how many quarterbacks are better than Tom Brady? Not many, if any.
Yes, the 19-year pro is 41 years old. He has played in 269 regular-season contests and 36 playoff games. Obviously, he is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning. But he’s still Tom Brady, a guy who’s coming off the best regular season ever by a QB over the age of 40.
Brady finished the regular season with 4,355 passing yards and 29 touchdowns, both top-10 marks. He did throw 11 interceptions — two more picks than he threw in the previous two seasons combined — but still, that’s mighty impressive for any passer, much less one with as many miles on him as Brady.
Chargers QB Philip Rivers is coming off one of the best regular seasons of his lengthy career as well, having passed for 4,308 yards and 32 TDs. But despite having more weapons at his disposal this season, he doesn’t have nearly as much playoff experience as Brady.
That will make a huge difference on Sunday, when Rivers falls to 0-8 all-time against Brady. The five-time Super Bowl champion simply seems to have his number.
1. They are Coming off a Bye
In addition to their dominance at home both this year and since the turn of the century, the Patriots also possess the best record in the league since 2003 when coming off a bye, according to TeamRankings.com (that’s as far back as the website dates). Over the past 16 years, New England is 23-4 in such situations, good for a winning percentage of 85.2.
Playing at home is huge for the Patriots, who are an NFL-best 129-21 at home since 2003, also according to TeamRankings.com. But coming off a bye may be even more important, particularly for older players like Brady and oft-injured tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Additionally, an extra week of preparation is a huge advantage for someone like Bill Belichick, who is widely considered one of the greatest coaches in NFL history. Giving him more time to formulate a game plan increases the Patriots’ chances of winning even more.
Not only that, but the Chargers are coming off a game against a physical Baltimore Ravens squad. Their best chance may be to hope that New England is rusty after a week off. However, that isn’t likely given how much experience the Patriots have on their side.
The hometown fans, Brady and Belichick will help New England march on to the AFC championship once again.