Although all signs point to quarterback Bailey Zappe starting, Mac Jones and Malik Cunningham are also officially active for the Patriots against the Chargers on Sunday.
New England's game-day inactives for Sunday's game at Gillette Stadium are WR Demario Douglas (concussion), WR Kayshon Boutte (shoulder/illness), DL Deatrich Wise (shoulder/illness), OT Vederian Lowe, RB Jamiycal Hasty, and CB Alex Austin. The Chargers game-day inactives are Isaiah Spiller, Ja'Sir Taylor, Zack Bailey, Nick Vannett, Simi Fehoko. and Scott Matlock. Los Angeles wide receiver Keenan Allen (quadricep) is officially active.
All three quarterbacks occupy spots on the game-day roster since the team used a standard elevation on Cunningham from the practice squad rather than signing him to the 53-man roster. As a result, the Patriots didn't have the option to designate an emergency third quarterback. The expectation is that Zappe will start, with Jones as the conventional backup, while Cunningham will have a package of plays as a read-option/RPO threat.
The Patriots weren't able to designate an emergency third quarterback. But having three "quarterbacks" active doesn't really affect their numbers elsewhere. With the two rookie receivers inactive, the Pats had room on the game-day roster for Cunningham. New England has been dressing five wide receivers lately, so with two game-day spots available, Cunningham takes one of those spots. The versatile undrafted rookie was practicing with the quarterbacks this week, but Cunningham spent most of the year practicing at wide receiver.
Although the Louisville product only played six snaps in his NFL debut against the Raiders in Week 6, four at receiver and two at quarterback, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien could use him in a Taysom Hill-type role where he plays both positions. The Patriots will likely lean on regulars DeVante Parker, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Tyquan Thornton, and Jalen Reagor at receiver, while TE Mike Gesicki is viewed by the team as a pseudo-wide receiver as well, so Cunningham will probably only play receiver in an emergency.
Instead, the Patriots have a package of plays installed for Cunningham to utilize his dual-threat abilities as a quarterback. In Week 6, New England attempted two read-option plays with Cunningham at quarterback that netted -4 yards. The Pats are hoping for better results, with the rookie having more reps in practice.
The offensive line is also a full go after starting left tackle Trent Brown (ankle/chest) and right guard Sidy Sow (ankle) carried questionable designations into the game. The Pats projected starting O-Line in front of Zappe is LT Trent Brown, LG Cole Strange, C David Andrews, RG Sidy Sow, and RT Mike Onwenu – a group that has improved with more continuity.
While facing a struggling Chargers defense that ranks 28th in DVOA this season, the Patriots will probably lean on their running game and play-action passes, with rain expected at Gillette Stadium. Under head coach Brandon Staley, Los Angeles has struggled to stop the run since Staley was hired in 2021, ranking 26th in run defense DVOA this season. The Pats have run the bell better in the last six games, ranking second in EPA per rush since Week 6. Ultimately, counting on a Patriots offense that has produced 20 points over their last two games is wishful thinking. However, this is a decent matchup on paper for the Zappe-led attack.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots defensive line will be without captain Deatrich Wise (shoulder/illness) against the Chargers eighth-ranked scoring offense. An illness was added to Wise's injury description early Sunday morning, while the Pats D-Lineman already carried a questionable designation into the game due to a shoulder injury. Wise has played 64.3% of the defensive snaps this season as a key cog in the Pats defensive line rotation, ranking second on the team with 27 quarterback pressures this season (via Pro Football Focus).
Chargers star quarterback Justin Herbert will have his top target, WR Keenan Allen (quadricep), available after Allen was officially questionable. Without Wise, rookie Keion White will take on a larger role following his first career sack in the loss to the Giants last week, while second-year DL Sam Roberts is active for the first time since Week 8.
At 2-9, the conversations around the Patriots are about the future of head coach Bill Belichick, the quarterback position, and the 2024 NFL Draft order. Although it's fair to focus on future considerations with this team, the hope is that inserting Zappe into the starting lineup and carving out a role for Cunningham will make this offense more exciting. Along with losing games, the product over the last two games hasn't been fun for fans to watch offensively. Hopefully, the offensive changes will light a fire under this group.
The Patriots host the Chargers with kickoff shortly after 1 p.m. ET at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.