This is a major game for the Patriots. It's the back half of an away-and-away and it's been a long road trip. New England played well against the Packers, but not well enough; the entire team is fired up and ready to take it out on their next opponent.
The Chargers are the unlucky team and they're a team used to late-season resuscitation. They have one of the best records over the final months of the season and they're not a team to take lightly. They've been barely surviving the past few games and needed a questionable last minute pass interference call to beat the Ravens last week.
While San Diego started the season as one of the hottest in the league, they faltered in a midseason stretch against the Chiefs, Broncos, and Dolphins, the last a horrifying 37-0 slaughter. Then again, the Patriots should be fairly familiar with how difficult those three teams can be.
The Chargers are definitely beatable, but they present an interesting mix of deep throws and pass rush that will allow them to challenge the Patriots early on. If they have success, this will be a game. If San Diego misses on their deep shots and their pass rush is ineffective, then the Patriots will run away with this one.
We watched the Chargers in their past two games as they took on the Rams and the Ravens. Here's what we saw.
When the Chargers run the ball
The San Diego offensive line is weak up the middle, generating very little push against the Ravens, but they showed some savvy while trapping the Rams potent defensive linemen out of rushing lanes. The Patriots defensive tackles aren't as aggressive as St. Louis', but it should be noted and taken into account.
The Chargers use three backs in rotation. Ryan Mathews is their feature back who is good and is able to take advantage of the yards presented to him. He won't knock over defenders, but he's capable in the open field and he's dangerous in all phases. When he gets to the outside, he can pick up a fair amount of yards.
Rookie Brandon Oliver has low center of gravity at 5'8, so the Patriots have to take him to the ground; no reckless body throws by defensive backs allowed. He has great balance and can move forward after contact. He plays a little like a young Maurice Jones-Drew.
Donald Brown is much less of a threat, but worth knowing. He's a former Colts back and he's mediocre; when he's on the field, it doesn't reveal a pass or run, so that's his value.
The Patriots should look to the Ravens when seeing how to slow the Chargers rushing attack. Throw some bodies in the trenches, don't let the backs get to the outside (looking at you, Rob Ninkovich), and let linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower clean up the mess; smart play by the linebackers should limit the Chargers to a mostly ineffective run game.
When the Chargers pass the ball
Philip Rivers' birthday is on December 8th (he'll be 33!), so it's up to the Patriots to ruin it. This is not an easy task. The Chargers have done a fantastic job redefining their offense to take the easy yards so they can extend drives and keep the ball out of opponents hands. Rivers is key to all of this.
He's accurate and can make quick throws. He's not the most mobile, but he's unafraid. The offense functions by looking shallow to deep, so if the short routes are covered, he'll look to the deep threat. If that's covered, he'll check down. Sometimes he'll go right to the checkdown if they're open. They take the easy plays and the easy yards. So the Patriots need to play tight coverage.
Sophomore wide receiver Keenan Allen is a monster. He's able to make people miss and he can generate separation down the field. He's not a burner, but he's able to come down with most passes. Allen is fantastic on hitches and back shoulder throws, and he's a good post route runner. The Patriots should smother him with Darrelle Revis as there's no second receiver of similar caliber.
Tight end Antonio Gates is still on the same page as Rivers and is a definite threat. He's not a yards after catch (YAC) monster anymore, but he has great hands and will frequently act as an outlet on a low crossing pattern in linebacker coverage. Look for Jamie Collins to hit Gates on the crosser as often as possible, but the tight end will probably still pick up some yards. The trick is to keep him out of the end zone as he has nine touchdowns on the year, with five total against the 2013 Super Bowl teams (three against the Seahawks, two against the Broncos).
Wide receiver Malcolm Floyd is a big deep threat and will receive a few targets far down the field. Brandon Browner will match up well as Floyd isn't a burner, but Floyd does a great job high pointing the ball and getting one step away from coverage. Rivers does a good job of hitting him in stride. Important to note that Floyd doesn't see many targets beyond the big throw.
Hopefully Browner is up for it. Or maybe they put Browner on Gates and let a third cornerback (Malcolm Butler?) and Devin McCourty watch the big play. You can be certain they'll try and draw a post route for Floyd to attack McCourty after the Patriots gave up the play to Jordy Nelson against the Packers.
Slot receiver Eddie Royal is a nuisance. He picks up 7 yards when there's only 3 available, and he'll slip through poor tackling form. Kyle Arrington will likely get the nod in coverage, but Royal can definitely move the chains. The Chargers also like to draw up plays for him in the red zone as he's very good at generating separation on quick slants. This might be a big game for him.
The Ravens were able to pressure up the middle as the Chargers are on their 5th starting center this year. Interior pressure causes Rivers to panic and throw high. Look for a lot of A-gap blitzes by Collins and Hightower, along with drops into coverage by either Akeem Ayers or Rob Ninkovich.
The offensive line does a good enough job protecting Rivers, but the quarterback does a good job of maneuvering through some trash. Defenders need to get into his chest to have an impact on his pocket movement.
When the Patriots run the ball
The Chargers aren't the strongest up the middle as their nose tackle is easily moved or sealed. The Patriots could run the ball and not regret it, and they should probably dedicate some time to the rush early on in the game.
That said, they're a very north-south run defense, like the Packers. If the Chargers linebackers get a straight shot at the ball carrier, they'll tackle them for no gain. The Patriots need to mix up the interior rushing lanes and draw up cutbacks to get the linebackers moving horizontally. If a back gets past the defensive line, they're going for at least 7-8 yards at a minimum due to the defensive front's aggression.
The Rams didn't do a good job of varying their inside runs and the Chargers front seven could just tee up on the rushing lanes. The Ravens opened up lanes to get their running backs towards the outside and away from the inside linebackers.
Zone stretch runs aren't as successful as the Chargers like to keep five players on the line, but they're needed to add pages to the playbook as the Chargers defense does a poor job when defending the misdirection. The Patriots should leak a receiver across the formation in the play action, while Tom Brady rolls away from the stretch; they should be able to connect across the field.
As the Chargers do a poor job of reacting to misdirection, look for the Patriots to give Julian Edelman a snap on a reverse.
There's no real sense on whether this is a Shane Vereen/Brandon Bolden or a LeGarrette Blount/Jonas Gray type of Day. Look for everyone to share snaps.
When the Patriots pass the ball
The Chargers love to rush five and six up the middle. They sit their defensive backs off the receiver at the top of routes to prevent the big play. This style of defense is easily countered by timing passes and quick slants, but the Chargers do a good job of adjusting throughout the game to prevent opposing offenses from getting into a rhythm.
Brandon Flowers is a fantastic corner with great recovery on routes. He will likely match up on Brandon LaFell, which means that the Patriots will have to draw up quick passes to get him involved. Everyone else can be attacked, so it shouldn't be too difficult to pass the ball to other receivers.
The Chargers are really weak when they present zone coverage with lots of open pockets in the deep part of the field. This will likely be a big Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright game up the seams.
The reality of the Chargers defense is a limited pass rush with a couple quality 3-4 defensive ends, an elite cornerback, and a great safety in Eric Weddle. So long as the Patriots can focus their offense at the area of the field without these players, they'll be able to move the ball at will.
That said, the Patriots offensive line will have to be up to the task as the Chargers will be blitzing on third downs all day.
The Chargers punter and kicker are both really good. The coverage and return teams are abysmal. Danny Amendola should be able to get the ball back to 30 yard line on every kick return. The Chargers shouldn't make it past the 15 yard line if they choose to return; look for some shorter kick offs by Stephen Gostkowski to entice the bad returns.
They're a really dangerous team to close the half. They're extremely efficient moving the ball down the field and into field goal territory.
The Chargers benefit from the second most penalties by opponents. The Patriots are the fourth most penalized in the league. This is a hidden imbalance of yardage that the Patriots need to prevent.
The coaching staff of both teams are really good at mid-game adjustments. Hopefully Josh McDaniels, who was head coach while Chargers head coach Mike McCoy was still offensive coordinator at Denver, has some insight into how he processes games in person.