The New England Patriots are finally entering the NFL playoffs on Sunday, when they will welcome the Los Angeles Chargers to Gillette Stadium with a trip to the AFC Championship Game on the line. Entering the contest, the Patriots are the oddsmakers’ favorite and the overall physical shape of the two squads might play a role in this: New England is healthier than the Chargers at this point in time.
The Patriots still have their fare share of questions heading into the preparations for their divisional round game, though. New England held two practice sessions last week, and the final one saw only two players absent due to injury: starting safety Devin McCourty is dealing with a concussion suffered during the regular season finale, while number two tight end Dwayne Allen is dealing with a knee injury.
McCourty’s concussion is not believed to be a long-term issue and there is optimism in Foxboro that the veteran will be ready to go once the game is kicked off in six days. Allen, meanwhile, has first been troubled by his knee when he hurt it in week 10. He missed three games because of the injury, but was active for New England’s final three regular season contests. He did pop up on the week 17 injury report again, but still went on to play 26 of 68 snaps.
If McCourty and Allen return to practice this week, and there appears to be no indication that they won’t, the Patriots will be at full strength — with one possible exception: second-year tight end Jacob Hollister, who served as a depth option and saw most of his action this year in the kicking game, is still bothered by a hamstring injury. While he was present at practice last week, the issue might reportedly cost him the postseason.
All in all, though, the Patriots appear to be pretty healthy heading into this week. The same can also be said for the Chargers, but only to a certain extent. After all, they did have to play an additional game leading into divisional round week — a hard-fought 23-17 road victory against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday — and have also been missing some of their core players due to season-ending injuries.
Starting cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Trevor Williams, for example, are both on injured reserve, as are linebacker Denzel Perryman and defensive tackle Corey Liuget. New England, for comparison, does not have the same quality and starting potential on its own reserve lists. The players that are available and on the Chargers’ 53-man squad, meanwhile, include only a handful of question marks — two of them are big, though.
Number one linebacker Jatavis Brown, who has been on the field for 61% of Los Angeles’ defensive snaps during the regular season, suffered an ankle injury in week 17 and missed yesterday’s game because of it. According to Bolts From the Blue’s Cole Thompson, Brown will miss the remainder of the playoffs as well because of the injury. This, in turn, will leave the Chargers even thinner at linebacker than they already are.
Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane is not dealing with an injury, but he also might be out on Sunday. The veteran defensive tackle, who is playing roughly half of Los Angeles’ defensive snaps, is dealing with a personal issue. He was already out on Sunday and his availability this week is also in question. And while the Chargers do have some solid depth along their defensive line, missing a player of Mebane’s quality still hurts.
Speaking of quality players: Melvin Gordon. The team’s number one running back left Sunday’s game against Baltimore with a knee injury but returned a short time later. However, his success was limited: Gordon ran the football 14 times, but gained only 32 yards (2.3 per carry) and a touchdown after his return — to be fair, though, he was not much better in his three carries before the injury either, gaining just eight yards on three runs.
Still, Gordon is a player to keep an eye on when the first injury report of the week is released on Wednesday: he led the Chargers offense with 1,375 yards from scrimmage during the regular season and scored 14 touchdowns. Safe to say that any injury as minor as it might be could have an impact on his play and by extension Los Angeles’ ability to move the football against a Patriots defense that has been relatively stout as of late.
Not all is bad, though, for the Chargers: L.A. could still activate Hunter Henry off the physically unable to perform list this week, to add more depth to its tight end position. All in all, though, the Patriots will remain the healthier of the two squads entering this week. That being said, the Chargers have shown a tremendous ability to adapt on the fly and will pose a challenge nevertheless.
[UPDATE] The Chargers have indeed activated Henry to their 53-man roster today.