Plenty of times, the divisional round has seen some poor wild-card weekend winner being offered up to the New England Patriots, and everyone knew they were going to get pummeled.
That’s not the case this season. The Los Angeles Chargers might be the toughest team the Patriots have seen in this round of the playoffs in years. They’re 12-4, a game better than the 11-5 Patriots. While Philip Rivers hasn’t had much success against New England, he has rarely been on a team this talented.
Here are the sleepers for each team, in what could be one of the best games of the NFL playoffs:
New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson
The New England Patriots, before the infamous Super Bowl benching, got four good years out of undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler.
Then when Butler left in free agency for the Tennessee Titans, they simply found the next Butler.
J.C. Jackson has been a late-season revelation for the Patriots. Butler didn’t have his big rookie moment until Super Bowl XLIX, when he made one of the greatest plays in NFL history to pick off Russell Wilson at the goal line and secure a win. Jackson has already become a key piece of the Patriots defense, well before the playoffs started.
Jackson became the starting cornerback opposite All-Pro Stephon Gilmore in Week 13, and he has played very well. According to Pro Football Focus (via NESN), quarterbacks had a passer rating of just 42.0 throwing against Jackson, the lowest rating against any NFL corner with at least 25 coverage snaps. He didn’t allow a touchdown in 270 coverage snaps, and had three interceptions.
“I feel like nobody could catch a pass on me, that’s my mindset,” Jackson said, via NBC Sports Boston. “Whoever I’m guarding, whoever’s in front of me, that’s my job. Make sure he doesn’t catch the ball.”
Philip Rivers and the Chargers will test him. If Gilmore shadows Keenan Allen — it’s always hard to predict what the Patriots will do, strategy-wise — then Jackson still has a tough test against Mike Williams or Tyrell Williams. Rivers is going to try out that matchup, to see if Jackson can hold up in his first playoff game.
“I’m a rookie, so every game, I feel like I got tested,” Jackson said, according to WEEI. “They were trying me. But I feel like I responded good. … But they’re still going to throw at me. And I’m ready.”
Los Angeles Chargers WR Travis Benjamin
Benjamin has a role on the Chargers offense. When he’s in the game, he’s likely stretching the defense deep.
Benjamin played about 23 snaps per regular-season game this season for the Chargers as their deep receiver. He caught just 12 passes, but has 19 career touchdowns and a 15.4-yard average.
The Patriots did give up some deep passes this season. They gave up 57 20-yard pass plays, tied for 10th most in the NFL. They gave up nine 40-yard pass plays, tied for 11th most (though on the whole the Patriots defend the deep pass pretty well). The Patriots have a good secondary, but not a great pass rush. New England had 30 sacks this season, and only the Raiders had fewer. Quarterbacks often have time to let plays develop downfield.
When the Chargers want to take a deep shot or two, Rivers should have some time in the pocket. And there’s a good chance Benjamin will be his target downfield. A big play or two could flip what should be a classic divisional round matchup.
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