This week's playoff contest has been one of the toughest Patriots' games to predict in recent memory.
On one hand, you have a road-tested opponent in the Chargers, who have won everywhere against high-quality opponents, including over the last month where they've emerged with victories at Pittsburgh, at Kansas City, at Denver and at Baltimore. They have one of the best quarterbacks in the league this season, with terrific weaponry at every position, and are highly efficient running and passing the ball. Their defense is filled with playmakers at all three levels (when safeties are at linebacker), and they are fast.
On the other side, you have almost the polar opposite. The Patriots lost five times on the road, and only beat one playoff team away from Foxborough (the Bears, who were 3-3 at the time), so their toughness has been questioned. And going 8-0 at home — where their last four victories came against teams with a combined record of 24-38-2 — hasn't dissuaded the talk they're a soft team that can only win under perfect conditions.
The Patriots' quarterback has taken a step back this season — most analytics have him in the area of eighth-best — as he's looked hurt and indecisive. And the weapons at his disposal are either aging or limited in big-play ability. As a result, the offense has largely been effective if they can run the ball, and generate some big plays with smoke and mirrors. The defense has played great in the past six games, but the front seven has lacked impact and can be made to look very slow.
And then, you have the undeniable intangibles that often impact games in the postseason. The Chargers are playing their third-straight road game, and are crisscrossing the country for the second time in a week. The only playoff game they've won since 2008 was against the Bengals in '13. The Patriots have players like Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung — among many others — who have as many playoff victories under their belts since 2010 (13) as the Chargers have won this season, and they're coming off a needed bye. There's also the weather, which, despite being in the upper 20s with sunshine for the game, will be biting and unfamiliar to their SoCal opponents.
One of two storylines will emerge at the end of this game: One, the Chargers will continue to show an undeniable toughness, and make the Patriots look old and slow with their much-better athletic ability. Or two, the Patriots will recapture the magic and stir the echoes of their glory years — which aren't that far removed and has been seen in glimpses this year (vs. Kansas City, the first half in Miami) — and have one more day in the sunshine in the winter of the dynasty.
Which will happen?