There were times when the Patriots offense was able to move the ball. There were times when Bailey Zappe showed some poise in the pocket and moved the chains with his legs. There were even times when the team converted some third downs and remained on the field for double-digit plays.
But at the end of the day the overall production looked eerily similar to what it had been in the previous 11 games – and it wasn't nearly good enough.
Zappe got his first start of 2023, and he did show the ability to navigate the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield instead of on the rush, which is something Mac Jones seemed to struggle with. But his passes were too often off target, particularly early on and at times he held the ball too long waiting for something the develop and took some sacks as a result.
So, when it was all said and done the offense still failed to score a single point, and in fact it never really threatened to do so on a rainy afternoon in Foxborough. The Patriots never entered the red zone against the Chargers, let alone the end zone. Zappe completed only 13 passes for just 141 yards, the Patriots managed a paltry 257 yards of total offense and, of course, zero points.
There were a couple of opportunities for more – like a nice deep ball that Tyquan Thornton probably could have caught and a Rhamondre Stevenson fumble at the Chargers 31 – but for the most part the Chargers slowed down the running game and forced Zappe to beat them. It's a tactic that opponents have used successfully against the Patriots for most of the season regardless of quarterback.
Too often opponents have been allowed to crowd the line of scrimmage with little to no repercussions. At times the Chargers had 10 players lined up within 10 yards of the ball, and at no time did Zappe make them pay. The same was true when Jones was at the helm, particularly over the span of the last several games. In fact, beyond the opener against Philadelphia when Jones led consecutive scoring drives late in the second quarter, and the upset win over Buffalo, the offense hasn't really enjoyed any sustained production.
That was true even with the change at quarterback, even if things felt better at times. In addition to Zappe's subtle movement in the pocket, the second-year quarterback protected the ball and avoided the turnovers that have plagued Jones. Bill Belichick mentioned that fact a couple times in the game's aftermath, which was likely a signal that Zappe will remain the starter Thursday night in Pittsburgh.
But quarterbacks need to make plays, not just avoid bad ones. The only significant offensive plays the Patriots managed against the Chargers were Thornton's 39-yard gallop on an end around and a deep back shoulder throw to DeVante Parker for 27 yards. Otherwise, it was an attempt to beat the Chargers with a death-by-1,000-paper-cuts approach that the visitors were all too willing to allow. Forced to start drives deep in their own territory much of the day, the Patriots stood no chance of putting many points on the board.
So, while it may have looked better the reality told a different story – one that Patriots fans have watched too many times this season.
Speaking of quarterbacks …
Interesting to see how Belichick treated the backup job against the Chargers. With Zappe as the starter he elevated Malik Cunningham from the practice squad and still had Jones on the active game day roster. Earlier in the season he had Zappe serve as the emergency quarterback with Cunningham the lone backup in a Week 6 loss in Las Vegas.
Perhaps Belichick recognized the bullet he dodged in that game when Jones managed to stay healthy and Cunningham wasn't needed for anything beyond the specific set of running plays that were built into the game plan. Had Jones been injured, Cunningham would have had to take the controls while Zappe was relegated to emergency status.
That said, it was strange that Cunningham was elevated yet didn't take a single snap against the Chargers. In a game where points were at a premium, Cunningham's running ability could have offered a change of pace that possibly could have led to some offense. Instead, Belichick stuck with Zappe the whole way and the Patriots were shut out at home for the second time this season.
Fun to see Joe Flacco step off his couch shortly after being signed and come close to leading the Browns to an upset victory over the Rams in Los Angeles. Flacco was brilliant for much of the afternoon and led a game-tying touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter with an 8-yard pass to tight end Harrison Bryant. But Browns kicker Dustin Hopkins missed the extra point, leaving the Browns trailing 20-19.
That's where Flacco's storybook afternoon ended as the veteran tossed an ill-advised interception on a deep ball the following series, leading to a Rams touchdown. Shortly thereafter, he was sacked in the end zone for a safety to close out the scoring as the Rams scored 16 points in the last 3:48 of what had been a 1-point game.
Flacco finished 23 of 44 for 254 yards with a pair of touchdowns to go with the costly pick. Considering he was out of football all season it wasn't a bad showing for the former Ravens Pro Bowler. Incidentally, the Rams won their third straight to climb to 6-6 and into playoff position as the seventh seed in the NFC.
For the last few weeks I've been watching the Eagles and wondering how they continuously get away with falling behind by multiple scores and figured things would have to change soon. Then San Francisco came to town and things changed – and not for the better.
The Niners were slow out of the gates before catching fire in the second quarter and rolling the Eagles in Philly. San Francisco scored 14 points in each of the second, third and fourth quarters and blew away Philly with an impressive showing that could establish the Niners as the league's elite team.
Brock Purdy continues to get little respect but went into a hostile environment against one of the game's fiercest fronts and lit up the Eagles. He completed 19 of 27 passes for 314 yards and four touchdowns, consistently avoiding the rush to make plays. I've said this in the past but when the Niners are at their best they are the team to beat in the NFL.
Interesting Monday Night game with Cincinnati walking out of Jacksonville with an impressive 34-31 overtime win without Joe Burrow. Backup Jake Browning was outstanding, completing 32 of 37 passes for 354 yards and two touchdowns while running for a third score. Unfortunately, the Jags may have lost more than a game when Trevor Lawrence limped off the field with an ankle injury suffered late in regulation. Lawrence was visibly upset after being stepped on and appeared to be in a lot of pain, although initial tests indicated he may have avoided a serious injury. Too many top quarterbacks going down this season.
- San Francisco (9-3) – The Niners manhandled the one-loss Eagles in their own building.
- Philadelphia (10-2) – Philly has been playing with fire and the schedule doesn't let up.
- Miami (9-3) – Still waiting for the Dolphins to prove against a top team but the defense is coming on.
- Dallas (9-3) – Big showdown with the Eagles for the NFC East looming.
- Baltimore (9-3) – The Ravens enjoyed the bye week and will be fresh for stretch drive.