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Patriots’ Potential Playoff Opponents: Chargers

01.01.14 at 8:30 am ET

With the Patriots securely in the postseason, it’€™s time to start sizing up their possible postseason opponents. This is the first in a weeklong series of features on the rest of the AFC playoff teams. Today, we open with a look at the Chargers:

The skinny: The Chargers won five of their last six to emerge from the morass to finish 9-7 and capture the sixth seed in the AFC. San Diego was up-and-down over the course of the regular season — it posted some really impressive wins, including road victories over the Broncos, Chiefs and Eagles, all playoff teams. Of course, the Chargers also lost to the Raiders, Jaguars and Redskins, three teams who saw their playoff chances evaporate somewhere around Halloween. You catch them on a good day, they can be dangerous. You get them on a bad day, and they can be beaten.

Offense: The Chargers will rise and fall on the arm of quarterback Philip Rivers, an occasionally erratic signal-caller who had one of the best seasons of his career. He finished in the top 5 in most major passing categories, including completion percentage (69.5, first in the NFL), touchdown passes (32, fourth), passer rating (105.5, fourth) and passing yards (4,478, fifth). The ground game is led by Ryan Mathews (285 carries, 1,255 yards, six touchdowns) and old pal Danny Woodhead (106 carries, 429 yards, two TDs). Woodhead is also part of a group of four pass catchers who have more than 600 receiving yards. Rookie Keenan Allen is the top target (71 catches, 1,046 yards, eight TDs), and he’€™s ably supported by ageless tight end Antonio Gates (77 catches, 872 yards, four TDs), Eddie Royal (47 catches, 631 yards, eight TDs) and Woodhead (76 catches, 605 yards, six TDs).

Defense: While it does have some impactful players — safety Eric Weddle, defensive end Corey Liuget — San Diego is essentially middle of the road defensively. The Chargers are middle of the pack when it comes to points allowed per game (21.8, 11th), total defense (366.5 yards allowed per game, 23rd) and run defense (107.8, 12th). If they do have anything resembling an Achilles’€™ heel, it’€™s probably their pass defense: the Chargers allow an average of 258.7 passing yards per game, 29th in the NFL. As a defense, San Diego isn’€™t great when it comes to forcing takeaways, as it had just 17 on the year, third-worst in the AFC. Weddle and Marcus Gilchrist lead the team with two picks each.

Why the Patriots should be afraid: Rivers and the offense have shown an ability to take a game over. He had four games this year where he threw for more than 380 yards, and the running game has picked up steam down the stretch — the Chargers ran for more than 100 yards in seven of their last eight games, including an average of 164 yards per game over the final month of the season. If New England does end up meeting the Chargers and San Diego finds a way to control the tempo early, the Chargers certainly have the running ability to give the Patriots some trouble. (Also, in the oddest of scheduling quirks, since 2009, every team that plays against the Eagles in Philly’€™s home opener that season has gone on to win the Super Bowl that same year — the last four years, the Saints, Packers, Giants and Ravens all played in Philly in their opener, and all went on to win the Super Bowl. Guess who opened up at the Linc this past September? Yep, the Chargers. Weird, wild stuff.)

Why the Patriots shouldn’€™t be afraid: The Chargers would have to come to Foxboro and face a New England team that’€™s 8-0 at home in 2013. As we mentioned before, San Diego does have some quality road wins, but it’€™s 4-4 away from Southern California this season. A cross-country trip to Gillette in January isn’€™t a recipe for success as far as San Diego is concerned. It’€™s unlikely that the Chargers’€™ pass defense could manage to keep up with the likes of Tom Brady in January in frozen Foxboro.

One guy to look out for: It’€™s impossible not to be wildly impressed by the type of year Allen is having. The youngster — who would almost certainly be defended by Aqib Talib if the Patriots and Chargers met this postseason — has had five games this year where he’€™s caught at least 100 yards worth of passes, including nine catches for 124 yards in a November win over the Chiefs in Kansas City. The 6-foot-2, 206-pounder out of Cal is one of the favorites to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and can make life tough for a secondary in a hurry.

Potential playoff villain: Liuget certainly drew the ire of some folks in Denver earlier this season when he connected with Peyton Manning‘€™s right ankle, a play the Broncos took issue with. (There was some belief that the hit was questionable between there was contact below the knee — the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Liuget was not flagged and not fined.) Liuget has shown that he can provide some level of pressure on the quarterback — he leads the team with 5.5 sacks — as well as work as a dependable presence in run support.

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