Turnovers Will be the Difference Between the Patriots and Chargers

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It’s been fun to watch the New England Patriots destroy teams who are a class below them in the Divisional round over the years - the Tim Tebow led Denver Broncos, the Brock Osweiler led Houston Texans, last year's Tennessee Titans to name a few - but those games lacked suspense. 

It’s the games that make you want to vomit uncontrollably - the Super Bowl against Atlanta, last year’s AFC Championship against Jacksonville, and the Divisional round game against Baltimore in 2014 - that make you a stronger person. They may shave a few years from our lives, but in the end, it’s all worth it. I don’t need to live until I’m 90. Those are the fun ones; and that’s exactly what I expect Sunday’s matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers to be like. 

Photo courtesy of USA Today
Of the three potential opponents entering last weekend, the Chargers are the most complete team. Each team would’ve presented its own unique challenges for the Patriots, but LA presents the most. They finished tied for the top record in the conference, and were a remarkable 7-1 on the road. They'll be up to the challenge on Sunday, or at least I expect them to be. 

There are so many matchups and components of this game to analyze; ones that will weigh heavily on the outcome.  Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram against the Patriots offensive line.  Stephon Gilmore against Keenan Allen.  The running backs from each team against the opposing linebackers in pass coverage.  Even the performance of the two kickers could have an impact on this one.  However, to me, it’s going to come down to ball security. 

Turnovers - specifically turnovers in key spots - usually dictate the result when two teams are so evenly matched.  In what should be a closely contested game, a fourth quarter, or red zone turnover could tip the scales one way or the other.  Advantage Patriots. 

While he has been better this year, Philip Rivers has been prone to interceptions throughout his career. Let me start by saying I’m not trying to disparage Rivers as a quarterback. He’s very good and probably top 10 in the league today; but the stats don’t lie. 

Before Sunday’s Wild Card Game against Baltimore, Rivers had thrown two interceptions in three consecutive games.  He turned the ball over in half of his games this year.  Since he became the full time starter back in 2006, Rivers has thrown at least 10 interceptions in 11 of 13 seasons.  He’s thrown 15 or more INT’s on five occasions, and 20+ interceptions in two seasons. 

For comparison, Brady has never thrown 15 interceptions in a season in his entire 19-year career.  He has thrown double digit interceptions in 10 of his 17 seasons, but six of those seasons came in his first six seasons as a starter.  He has taken better care of the ball as he has gotten older.  This year was the first time since 2013 that Brady threw 10+ INT’s (he threw 11). 

Rivers’ apt for turnovers has followed him into the postseason as well.  He’s thrown 9 INT’s in 10 postseason games, and has thrown a pick in each of his first six playoff games.  Now, he did not throw one on Sunday, and he also didn’t throw one back in 2013 - his last playoff appearance - in the two games he played during that postseason. 

The Pats finished tied for 5th in the league with 28 takeaways this season; including eight in their last three games.  They had at least one interception in 12 of their 16 games.  At home, the team was particularly effective forcing 18 turnovers.  They weren't just taking advantage of the Jets, Bills and Dolphins either. The Pats forced a turnover in each of their 8 home games this year, and had multiple takeaways in all but one game. 

To call this defense “opportunistic” I think does them a disservice.  It makes them sound fortunate to have all of these turnovers, and takes away from their play.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t quite label them “ball hawks” either.  They are somewhere in between the two.  Sure, they have had some good fortune, but they’ve also had a hand in forcing many of these turnovers. 

We’ve seen a number of guys - Trey Flowers and Adam Butler come to mind - force fumbles by punching at the ball.  Malcolm Butler was great at this during his time here.  He would ball up his fist and literally take a swing at the ball.  It’s something I’ve noticed with Stephon Gilmore as well.  It’s clear this tactic is definitely taught by the coaching staff.  When making a tackle, you’ll see the first guy attempting to hold the ball carrier up, with hopes that a teammate will come over and go for the ball. 

So, how can the Pats take advantage of Rivers' tendency to turn the ball over?  It’s two-fold.  It starts with stopping the run; something they’ve struggled to do all year.  They have to slow down Melvin Gordon, Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson; whomever is carrying the ball.  If New England allows LA to run for 4-5 yards per carry, it’s going to be a long day. 

The Pats need a vintage Donta Hightower on Sunday.  They need solid games from Danny Shelton and Malcolm Brown up front.  Trey Flowers told reporters he had a nightmare this week in which he didn’t set the edge.  The Pats need him to do that and more on Sunday.  Stopping, or at least slowing down, the run will force Rivers to attempt more passes, increasing the likelihood of a turnover. 

New England’s offense can play a role in this too.  First, by running the ball.  Having a successful ground game can apply tons of pressure to the opposing offense, because it allows you to burn clock.  Having less time to operate may lead Rivers to make a risky throw or two, knowing that his chances are going to be limited.  Similarly, converting on third downs, and sustaining drives will also apply pressure to Rivers and the Chargers offense by keeping them off of the field. 

However, it's not enough just to extend drives and possess the ball, New England needs to finish off those drives in the endzone; which is something they've struggled with throughout the year.  In the playoffs, you have to execute in the red zone.  The teams that finish drives off with 6 instead of 3, are typically the ones advancing at the end of the day.

Rivers hasn't thrown a postseason interception since 2009.  Maybe he’s getting better?  I think he’s getting due. Combine Rivers’ turnover history with the way the Patriots defense has taken the ball away this season, and things are lining up pretty well for New England this Sunday. 

To quote the illustrious Bart Scott...can't wait.


Follow me on Twitter - @mcvay34

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Boston Sports Syndicate: Turnovers Will be the Difference Between the Patriots and Chargers
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