Patriots will need a shorter route to beat Chargers

Staff file photo by TOM KING James White may be a big key for the Patriots in their game plan vs. the Chargers in Sunday's AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Gillette Stadium.

This is what the playoffs are really supposed to be like.

The New England Patriots have begun their preparations for Sunday’s 1 p.m. AFC Divisional Round playoff game against the Los Angeles Chargers, the team that under the leadership of coach Anthony Lynn and quarterback Philip Rivers shows no fear.

They have a lot of work to do, obviously.

It seems like it could be all there for the Patriots. The Indianapolis Colts have played solid football the last two months and have a very good chance of knocking off the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday. The Patriots could be playing Sunday for the chance to host the AFC Championship Game for the third straight season.

What stands in their way, unlike years past when the opponent has been fairly limited and a heavy underdog, is a talented football team that by season’s end was probably the best of the AFC’s West.

It’s been pretty well detailed why the Chargers have been good – solid defense, veteran quarterback, good coaching. This will be the best team the Patriots will have played since they faced Kansas City at Gillette back on Oct. 14.

That’s saying a lot, and showing how overrated New England’s schedule really became as the season went on.

What do the Patriots need to do? Try to exploit the Chargers wherever they are lacking, as usual. There’s a thinking that it may be difficult for a team limited at wide receiver to get open targets on the edge. Or even get it to tight end Rob Gronkowski. We say the key player offensively could be running back James White.

He’s almost been forgotten down the stretch. But he and backs Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead likely won’t be on Sunday. They should be catching several Tom Brady offerings, because the Chargers have given up nearly 1,000 receiving yards to running backs, one of the worst in the league in that category. Their defense is said to gives up that soft spot in the flat or middle that could also enhance Julian Edelman’s game as well. L.A. coordinator Gus Bradley could counter that by not focusing as much on the deep game since the Patriots don’t have a strong one. But look for White to do some big things, as he usually does in the post season (remember 28-3).

“I think everybody in this building tries to raise their level of intensity in the playoffs,” White said during the week off. “Like I said, you lose, you go home, so you’ve got to play your best football.

“You never know which play’s going to make a difference in the end of the game, so you’ve got to make each play you go out there and play, you’ve got to make it count. I think that’s the approach that everybody tries to have.”

Unlike most of the playoff games this past weekend, this is a game that features two experienced quarterbacks. “They’re playing as well as any offense that’s played all season,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said of Rivers, who threw for 4,308 regulars season yards with 32 TDs, during his weekly WEEI radio appearance Monday. “He’s (Rivers) had an incredible year. … This guy’s got all the confidence in the world, and it makes for a great matchup.”

What makes for a great matchup is the experience and the handling of the pressure, the big intangible. The Chargers handled it well this past Sunday. Now we’ll see how this particular Patriots team can do it.

“There’s a lot (of pressure),” Brady said. “This is not four of seven or three of five. If you have a bad game, you’re out. … In pro football, if you have one bad game, that’s it. That’s what makes it so challenging, that’s what makes it so intense. That’s why the pressure’s there.

“But I think the guys playing at this time of year know how to deal with pressure. … Even if you’re young, you played in big programs, Sony (Michel) played in Georgia, played in national championship games. I think we’re all accustomed at this point to playing on the biggest stage with the most pressure.”

White agrees. The Patriots makeup will be a huge factor in this game, but for the first time in a long time they are facing a divisional round opponent who has strong mental makeup (8-1 on the road, wins at Seattle, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Baltimore) as well and some talent to match.

“I think there’s a lot of guys (on the Patriots) that have been through this,” White said. “At the same time, that exactly doesn’t matter – it’s jut going to be who goes out there and plays their best football (on Sunday).”

The Chargers are a challenge, make no mistake. But they should be one the Patriots are up for.

PLAYOFF RANKINGS:

AFC

1.L.A. Chargers (13-4). 2. Kansas City (12-4). 3. New England (11-5). 4. Indianspolis (11-6).

NFC

1.New Orleans (13-3). 2. L.A. Rams (13-3). 3. Dallas (10-6). 4. Philadelphia (10-7).