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Patriots vs Chargers keys to the game: Play complementary football

Related: Patriots vs Chargers preview: How New England’s defense might find success against Los Angeles

Baltimore Ravens v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

If we’ve learned anything in the last two decades, once the calendar flips to December, the New England Patriots traditionally start to play their best football for the stretch run. Sitting just outside the top-7 and in the hunt for an AFC wild card playoff spot, the Patriots have minimal room for error and will look to get back to .500 with a win over the 3-8 Los Angeles Chargers.

However, as. was the case with the Houston Texans a couple of weeks back, the Chargers’ record doesn’t necessarily reflect the team’s talent after having played in nine one-score games this season. Led by Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite Justin Herbert at quarterback, L.A. is ranked third in yards on offense and has the weapons on the outside and in the backfield to really challenge a Patriots defense that has been inconsistent so far this year.

New England’s offense, meanwhile, is coming off one of Cam Newton’s tougher games in terms of efficiency and will look to get more creative to keep up with the Chargers’ high-powered attack. The Damien Harris-led backfield will face a front that ranks 18th in the league in terms of rushing yards per game. With teams consistently loading up the box and daring the Patriots to throw to beat them, Newton will need to return to playing turnover-free football to keep his team in the game.

Play complementary football

One of the biggest reasons for the Patriots’ struggles this year is their inability to string together consistently positive play on both sides of the ball. For instance, coming off one of their best games of the year in a win over Baltimore, the defense failed to show up in a timely matter down in Houston when the offense was certainly scoring points and moving the ball efficiently. In last week’s game after a turnover on just the third play that led to seven points and an interception in the final minutes, it was the defense that bailed the other unit out with some important stops before the half and late in the game.

If the Patriots can slow down the Chargers defensively by using several different schemes and stunts to mess with rookie quarterback Justin Herbert — similar to what Brian Flores did with Miami a few weeks back — and the offense can come into fruition like we saw for most of the last month or so, the Patriots should be able to pull out a win in their first of two games out on the West Coast.

Don’t let Austin Ekeler beat you

Obviously the Chargers have many ways to beat you on the outside with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, and over the middle with Hunter Henry. However, Ekeler, who chips in both in the running and passing games, is a true problem for defenses coming out of the backfield. His speed and elusiveness give front sevens a tough time on a week-to-week basis.

Anthony Lynn and his staff will certainly try to create mismatches with the Patriots’ linebackers as it’s been probably the weakest link of the team’s defense in 2020. Coming off 85 yards through the air and two 11-catch games this season, Ekeler serves as one of the Chargers’ X-factors when it comes to moving the ball and creating havoc for opposing defenses.

So what could New England do to slow him down? The recent emergence of rookies Kyle Dugger and Josh Uche, who have flashed their speed and athleticism over the last few weeks, could prompt the Patriots to view them as critical pieces in containing Ekeler out of the backfield as well.

Finish drives

The Patriots’ offense has certainly been one of the most inconsistent in the league. This is especially apparent when it comes to finishing dries. They do have their fair share of 10- or 11-play possessions but eventually stall out and have to settle for field goals. New England lacks the talent on the outside in order to move the ball and pick up several chunk plays through the air on a regular basis, so getting more creative with designed runs and stretching the field out will be important facing a Chargers team that seemingly can’t finish off games either.

Averaging just 1.9 points in the first quarter and ranking dead last in the NFL, the Patriots must start off strong and come out firing on all cylinders. Both teams are no strangers to close games, with the Chargers — as mentioned above — playing in nine one-score games. New England has played in seven and it will be imperative for the team to finish its drives and put up the points to pull away on Sunday and force Herbert to win the game for Los Angeles.

Prediction: Patriots 24 - Chargers 16

Did you know?

  • Damien Harris ranks fourth in the league only behind Nick Chubb, Miles Sanders and Dalvin Cook averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
  • Bill Belichick is 25-5 versus rookie quarterbacks in his career in New England. The five to beat him were Ben Roethlisberger, Mark Sanchez, Colt McCoy, Russell Wilson and Geno Smith.
  • This will be the first meeting between the two teams since the 2018 AFC Divisional round. The Patriots won 41-28 in a game that saw Sony Michel rush for 129 yards and three touchdowns.
  • The Patriots haven’t had a losing record since 2000 and have yet to finish without the best record in the AFC East in that same time period.