The Patriots hit the road for a two-game road trip to Los Angeles, first taking on the 3-8 Chargers as New England tries to even up their season record and grow their faint playoff hopes. As usual this season, the Pats will need a clean and complementary game to knock off a Chargers team that has fought through close games all season long.
The last time the Pats saw Anthony Lynn's team it was the Divisional Round of the 2018 playoffs and New England delivered a devastating offensive attack that put up almost 500 yards of offense. This is not the same Patriots offense, but offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels knows what needs to happen to attack Gus Bradley's defense. The question is if he has the pieces to execute it.
Offensively, the Chargers have all the weaponry they need to support rookie quarterback Justin Herbert. They will pose a number of challenges for a Patriots matchup defense that will spin the dial and try to force Herbert into mistakes.
Here are the keys to the game, presented by Carmax!
Return to clean football
After three-straight games without a turnover, it looked like the Patriots were about to regress in a major way against the Cardinals, with interceptions on the opening drive and late in the fourth quarter. In the past, these were the kind of critical errors that embodied how the Pats were beating themselves, getting a slow start and then short-circuiting any comeback ability.
The re-emergence of multiple turnovers also coincided with another penalty-marred game, with New England being flagged six times against the Cardinals, giving them 27 over the last five games, after accumulating just 15 in their first six games.
Simply put, they're not going to be able to overcome multiple penalties and turnovers, their path to victory is too specific and it all starts with giving themselves the chance to win by playing smart football.
Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch ahead of the Patriots matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Dictate on defense
Brian Flores' defensive game plan held the Chargers to their lowest yardage output of the season, using plenty of amoeba fronts to confuse rookie quarterback Justin Herbert. Expect the Patriots to take a similar approach with their defense, as they've found some creative wrinkles in recent weeks to help defend some of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the game.
The Pats' D is at their best when they're playing aggressive, the difference between their performances against the Cardinals and Ravens versus the Texans were dramatically different. Against a rookie quarterback, they'll want to attack and get him uncomfortable. Chase Winovich and Josh Uche have been emerging passing down disruptors and they'll be critical on third downs, where the Chargers rank 10th in the NFL, while also being 2nd overall in third-and-long situations according to Football Outsiders.
The biggest problem might be Austin Ekeler, who is a major engine for the offense and just returned after missing a big chunk of the season with a hamstring injury. The Chargers have not been great on early downs this year and Ekeler's return will provide them with a boost that changes their offensive dynamic from what we've seen over the last two months.
How to deal with Ekeler and tight end Hunter Henry will be the toughest decisions the coaching staff has to make.
Perhaps the characteristic that stands out most about the Chargers is they're still learning how to finish off games. Other than last week's 10-point loss to the Bills, their average margin of defeat has been just 4.6 points, including two overtime losses. They're third in the NFL in yards, but just 16th in points scored.
Defensively, they're the 6th-best defense in the first half, but fall to the bottom of the league in the second half, according to Football Outsiders. This is a team that has all the pieces but has trouble finishing with the game on the line. That won't last forever as they continue to acquire experience.
The Patriots are no strangers to close games themselves and their fourth-quarter performances can almost all be directly tied to whether they win or lose. Overall, the Pats have the opposite kind of rankings to the Chargers, with both the offense and defense improving as the game progresses. From the first half to the second, their offense goes from 28th to 10th, while their defense goes from 30th to 18th.
It's easy to believe this game will simply come down to who makes the fourth-quarter plays. The Patriots must get off to a good start, something that has plagued them often this year, and make sure that the game remains close late. That's where they're clearly the better team and where they can pull out the win.
Special Teams be special again
The Chargers have one of the worst-ranked special teams units in the league and nowhere is that more apparent than on their punt team, where they have had three punts blocked this season, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
If there's a spot where the Patriots excel at picking up hidden yardage it's on the special teams and this could be an area that decidedly favors New England. Last week, the Pats special teams started to really come on with big kick and punt returns that helped produce points.
This week they could play an even bigger factor, especially if they can re-capture some of the punt block magic from 2019. Expect them to be aggressive and try to make game-changing plays with one of their biggest strengths. Kicker Nick Folk and punt Jake Bailey will also be critical pieces as every point and yard of field position are counts in a game like this.
Prediction: The Patriots have been inconsistent this season, but now, in December, they traditionally play their best football, a product of consistent practices and a base of knowledge in the system. They can be limited, and the Chargers are certainly a team that can have success moving the ball, but New England is the better-coached and better-rounded team and that should be enough of an edge to help them get the win. Again, it will take big plays on defense and special teams to get things going.
Patriots 21, Chargers 20