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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Taking charge of L.A.

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Heading into Sunday’s battle with the streaking Chargers (3-4) at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots (5-2) are simultaneously coming off their best win and dealing with one of their biggest losses of the season.

There is little question that New England’s performance in last Sunday night’s 23-7 win over the Falcons in the Super Bowl LI “rematch” left Patriot Nation feeling good. The defense held Matt Ryan and Co. in check while the offense and defense did their parts in the complementary, 60-minute effort.

But that good feeling dissipated this week as it was learned that Pro Bowl linebacker Dont’a Hightower suffered what is apparently a season-ending chest injury against Atlanta, a blow to a fledgling front seven that leaves a massive void in terms of both on-field play and leadership.

The newly-reminted Los Angeles squad treks across the country with a three-game winning streak, which actually matches what the Patriots have done over the last month after a 2-2 start to the year.

Given all that’s gone on through the first two months, it’s clear that New England puts a premium on heading into the Week 9 bye with another win. But the team’s leaders know that won’t be easy and that wanting to win before the bye won’t be enough to actually make it happen.

“Knowing that this is the last game before that you want to finish on a high note and you want to go in feeling really good about what you've done,” Tom Brady said. “The problem is this team is – they're hot, they've won three straight, they've got a really good defense. There's nothing easy about it. It's a big challenge facing them but to get to 6-2 would be huge for this team and that's what we're going to try to do.”

“You want to go into a bye week coming off [a win], satisfied with your play knowing that we've got a good win, a good, solid team win, but it's going to be dedication to this Sunday,” tight end Rob Gronkowski agreed. “We've got to come out ready to play. It's going to be a physical game mentally and physically. We've got to be ready. We've got to be prepared. They're a good team. They're on a hot streak right now. We've got to be ready.”

Some might call this a potential trap game, but the Hightower injury would seem to eliminate that storyline. More accurately the Patriots are the better team, at home looking to maintain its momentum against a game but questionable opponent making the rare, long trip to New England.

Prior to the afternoon kickoff of what could be a windy late-October Sunday afternoon at Gillette, here are a few keys to this matchup featuring two long-tenured, respected franchise quarterbacks with Philip Rivers trying to pull off the upset against Brady.

Stop the rush 1 – The biggest talking point emanating from Foxborough all week has surrounded the Chargers two-headed pass-rush duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. The pair has combined for 16 sacks, each ranking near the top of the league for L.A.’s defense that ranks fourth in the NFL in sacks per pass play. That’s a big reason the Chargers have the No. 5 pass defense. Bosa is a rising star and Ingram is a proven veteran. Together, according to Bill Belichick, they make the Chargers defense “special.” The Patriots pass protection has been better the last couple weeks, but this is the group’s biggest test. It’s not about one guy or one side. It will take a broad effort to keep Brady clean, functional and healthy. Brady also said he needs to get rid of the ball “fast,” to keep the passing game going. The Chargers pass rush could very well decide the game, for better or worse, depending on your vantage point.

Stop the rush 2 – The loss of Hightower is a huge blow to the defensive front and its ability to stop the run. But the biggest issue the front faces isn’t its only personnel problem. Malcom Brown will miss the first game of his career due to an ankle injury. Elandon Roberts is still dealing with an ankle injury that sidelined him last week. Cassius Marsh (shoulder) and Lawrence Guy (chest) were both limited in practice this week. The Chargers will certainly look to establish Melvin Gordon early on. The third-year back isn’t having a great season, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry. But L.A. is comfortable controlling the ball and making plays on third down through the air, an area in which Keenan Allen excels . It’s up to Alan Branch, Kyle Van Noy and the rest of the banged-up front to make sure Gordon doesn’t find too much room to roam. If L.A. can add a productive ground game to an effective pass rush it will have taken two big steps toward pulling off the road upset.

Stay in control – Sunday night’s win over the inept Falcons was the first time this year that the Patriots really controlled the game and played it on their terms. They got a lead in the second quarter, ran the ball and cruised to victory. On paper the Patriots should have the ability to do the same against the Chargers. Getting an early lead would put a lot of pressure on Rivers and Co. to play catch-up, which is not where L.A. wants to be. The visitors have trailed in the fourth quarter of all but one game this season, so it’s not like they aren’t capable of coming back. But trailing in Foxborough is a different kind of beast to slay. And the Patriots are at their best when they get an early lead and play from ahead, even if they haven’t been able to do that too often this season.

Stay on Dion – Dion Lewis has seen his production and role grow in recent weeks. It’s helped to balance out the offense, even if it hasn’t resulted in quite as many points on the scoreboard. Lewis has proven himself the most productive back, able to run between the tackles and make people miss. The Chargers have one of the worst run defenses in the league, ranking 31st in yards and allowing 4.9 yard per carry. While it’s obvious the Patriots want to keep spreading the load among all the backs in the team’s crowd backfield committee, Lewis has earned the right to be the lead dog. Running at the Chargers talented pass rush, and maybe using the screen game with Lewis and Co., would also be a nice way to help out the New England line do its job.

Play it tight – This matchup has an interesting mix of tight ends. Though he’s taken on a lesser role this season, Chargers legend Antonio Gates is a clear future Hall of Famer. Gronkowski likely has a similar future. And L.A. has a new developing star at the position in second-year stud Hunter Henry. The Patriots pass defense has had its issues with tight ends, historically and this fall. New England has allowed opposing tight ends to score five times this season, third most in the league. Gronkowski is at the center of everything New England does on offense. He’ll make his plays in the passing game, but may also be called upon to help block L.A.’s impressive defensive front. There is a good chance that the tight ends from both squads will be a key part of Sunday’s action.

*Lead the way – *Hightower was called a “special player” and “huge loss” by many teammates. That importance isn’t just about his game-changing plays and on-field talents. He’s also a big part of the Patriots leadership. Filling that void in leadership may be an even bigger issue than filling Hightower’s shoes on the field. Guys like fellow captains Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon are obvious choices to keep the positive momentum going on defense and make sure the unit doesn’t lose a step after losing its leader. It may fall on other players, like maybe David Harris, to increase their leadership. Maybe the going will never get tough enough on Sunday to see the leadership issue come into play. But at some point the post-Hightower leadership will need to be monitored.

Prediction: *There is no doubt the Patriots took a major blow losing Hightower. Added to the early-season loss of Julian Edelman, New England moves forward without two of its most clutch performers. Down the road that may be a major issue for the defending champs. But for this week, Belichick’s team should have more than enough to deal with what the Chargers bring to the field. But one impressive performance does not erase New England’s struggles, especially for a defense that could see a return of Stephon Gilmore. Rivers leads a solid passing attack with a variety of weapons, but L.A. has been held to 21 points or fewer in five of seven games. If the Patriots can make it six that should be enough to get the win. The biggest question is the pass protection. Give Brady time and he’ll move the ball and put up points, especially considering the improved running game that should get its chances to produce once again. Defensively New England just has to be good enough. Avoid wide-open receivers and big plays – as the unit did against Atlanta – and it should be sufficient to get the job done. In the end it’s hard to see L.A. coming to town and pulling off the upset without a game-changing play in the kicking game and a strip sack or some other key play on defense. The opportunity is there for the Patriots to get back into the 30s with a 31-13 win *over the Chargers. That would certainly be a nice way to head to into the bye, remaining atop the AFC East and in contention for the best record in football.

What do you think about our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!

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