Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers beat the Cincinnati Bengals in a huge AFC game last week.
The New England Patriots beat the Buffalo Bills on Monday night.
Mac Jones threw three passes in a storm while the Patriots ran to a low-scoring win. On Sunday night, the Baltimore Ravens failed on a two-point play against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Those two results combined pushed the Patriots into the #1 seed in the AFC. And while the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Denver Broncos, it still feels like Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers are the biggest threat to the Patriots in the AFC.
As the Buffalo Bills have proven in recent years, it's hard to trust their quarterback against good defences. You can trust Patrick Mahomes against any defence, but the Chiefs offence as a whole is majorly lacking in talent surpassed Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.
Lamar Jackson gives the Baltimore Ravens a chance in every game, but all of his running backs and cornerbacks are hurt now. Half of his offensive line is missing and his wide receivers are simply bad. That leaves Justin Herbert and the Chargers as the only team with the requisite talent and quarterback to contend. Herbert beat Joe Burrow's Cincinnati Bengals last week.
It was a pivotal game. The Bengals needed it. The Chargers needed it.
Since the Bengals lost, they fell to 7-5, one spot behind the Ravens. The Chargers move to 7-5, one spot behind the Chiefs.
Herbert played a better game than Burrow. It was a crucial battle between two second-year quarterbacks. While neither player played his best game, Herbert showed not only his individual quality but the overwhelming nature of the talent around him. The Chargers overcome unforced errors from Austin Ekeler (two fumbles) and an interception from Herbert on Third-and-Long.
Mike Williams made the biggest play for the Chargers on their opening drive. Williams isn't a boom-or-bust receiver. But when he has a big impact, it's always a huge impact because his big plays are always huge plays. Herbert drops back int he pocket after a play fake on this play before locating Williams one-on-one downfield.
Herbert purposely puts the ball on his inside shoulder and leads him upfield. He's using Williams' size to his advantage. The defender can't go through his body, nor can he get around it to knock the ball away.
This is a smart play design and way of using Williams. The Chargers coaching staff kept all the wide receivers tight to the line of scrimmage so the defensive backs had to drop back off the line of scrimmage. Doing so meant that Williams could get into a full sprint before the cornerback touched him. Williams thrives from that position.
For the Chargers second touchdown, Williams again made the biggest play. This time Herbert recognizes the mismatch advantage and the positioning of his receiver against the defender. He throws the ball up for grabs, relying on Williams to win it in the air, but still this is a very smart throw where the quarterback clearly understands the strengths of his teammate.
Williams is the Chargers' second-best receiver. Keenan Allen scored the Chargers' first two touchdowns in this game. Covering Allen is incredibly difficult, but for completely different reasons from Williams. He's lightning-quick, very smart and is tough enough to make catches over the middle of the field.
On this play, Herbert uses his eyes to move the coverage over the middle of the field. The linebacker watching his eyes can't undercut the throw to Allen because Herbert widened his starting point. Furthermore, Herbert has one of the strongest arms in the league so his ball reaches Allen faster than the linebacker can react to it.
This play captures the quality of Herbert's arm, but also how quickly he processes defences.
Allen is the fourth receiver that Herbert looks at. Williams running the slant at the top of the screen is first. Ekeler in the flat is second. Then he looks to Jared Cook who runs a crossing route from the same side as Allen. After those three receivers are covered, Herbert finds Allen who has smartly settled down in the perfect spot to catch the ball.
Notably, the Bengals could cover all those receivers because they only sent three pass rushers after Herbert. He never panicked despite the defence seemingly taking away all his options.
Allen's second touchdown was much easier. This time the Chargers purposely push Herbert out of the pocket. His athleticism and the route combinations complementing that action confuses the defence. The deep safety sprints forward thinking it's a running play, leaving Allen wide open in behind.
Later in the game, the defence covered this play effectively. It didn't matter. Herbert was able to show off his poise against arriving pressure to survey the defence and locate Jalen Guyton open down the seam. This led to another short touchdown run that essentially iced the game as a competition.
The problem for the Chargers has been their lack of consistency. But they're hitting peaks of performance that their counterparts aren't.
And while Joey Bosa is dealing with concussion problems, they are relatively healthy on the whole. They're not decimated like the Baltimore Ravens and they're not lacking depth like the Kansas City Chiefs. You'll need an elite quarterback performance to beat the Patriots defence in the playoffs. Youll also need the weapons to win matchups against that stellar secondary.
At the very least, they are a team that will pose more problems to Bill Belichick's gameplanning than any other.
And hey, they even threw in a trick play reminiscent (but different to) the Philly Special this week too. Belichick doesn't need that reminder.
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