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Patriots at Chargers Pregame Six-Pack!

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Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart gives you his players to watch during Sunday's matchup against the San Diego Chargers.

The Patriots (9-3) are coming off their first loss in two months as the Packers snapped New England's seven-game winning streak last Sunday evening in Green Bay. Bill Belichick's team quickly turned the page to this Sunday night's key AFC battle with the Chargers (8-4) by flying to the West Coast directly from Wisconsin. New England has spent the week getting acclimated to the San Diego weather and getting ready for Philip Rivers-led team, that like the Patriots, is often at its best late in the season. Sunday's game also marks the final contest of the six-game stretch that many thought would define New England's season, with the Patriots having gone 4-1 so far. New England's loss on Sunday also cut the team's margin for error in terms of securing a potential No. 1 seed in the AFC and another road defeat would certainly put such a key postseason advantage very much in jeopardy. So while you prepare for Sunday's final game that will bring prime-time action from the West Coast, enjoy this SoCal-inspired (not SoCo), long workweek edition of the Patriots at Chargers Pregame Six-Pack!

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  1. Another QB battle –** Week after week Tom Brady has been taking part in some pretty impressive quarterback battles. From long-time rival Peyton Manning to young gun Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers in the prime of his career, Brady has had to keep pace with some impressive foes over the last couple months. That's the case once again on Sunday night. Rivers and Brady have had very similar seasons. Rivers has a 102.8 rating on the year thanks to a completing nearly 70 percent of his passes with 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Brady's rating is 101.1 with a completion percentage of 64.8 while throwing for 28 touchdowns and six interceptions. The latter leads the NFL's No. 7 passing attack, the former No. 11. Though neither team is built simply around its quarterback, each tends to go about as far as its passer takes it with his right shoulder. Rivers is coming off an impressive performance in the comeback win in Baltimore. Brady is coming off a solid but losing effort in Green Bay. These two have battled before in big games – including a playoff game in San Diego in 2006 and an AFC title contest in Foxborough a year later. Brady won both those matchups. Rivers will be looking to get his team even more into the AFC playoff picture in this one as he looks to send Brady home east with his first losing streak of the season.

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  1. Balanced approach? – **The Patriots had just 18 rushing attempts last Sunday in the losing effort in Green Bay. That number was the third lowest for the New England rushing attack this season and fewest since Week 7 against the Jets. It led to an offense that was unbalanced and not as productive as it probably should have been, especially facing the NFL's No. 30 run defense. The Chargers aren't nearly that suspect stopping the run, but they do allow 4.3 yards per carry on the season as a team. LeGarrette Blount did his best with limited attempts in Green Bay and is averaging a crazy 6.2 yards per carry in his two games since returning to New England. Blount and the Patriots rushing attack should be a part of the game plan in San Diego in order to keep the offense balanced and at its best, facing a defense that sports the No. 7 pass defense in the game. On the flipside, the Chargers will potentially be looking to be balanced on offense as well. San Diego has not run the ball effectively this year, but a big part of that is the fact that Ryan Mathews missed seven games to injury. Since his return, he's notched a 100-yard effort against the Raiders and reached the end zone in the last two weeks. The Patriots rush defense remains suspect at times. Opponents are averaging 4.2 yards per carry on the season. New England gave up big plays to Eddie Lacy last week, but kept him in check at other times. That performance came after the Patriots front had been pretty dominant for the better part of a month against the run. Still, look for San Diego to try to get Mathews moving on the ground. The same could/should be said for Blount and the Patriots.

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Check out practice and media access photos as the team prepares for its upcoming game against the Chargers in San Diego.

  1. Ball security –** Last Sunday's matchup with Green Bay saw two of the best teams in the NFL in terms of turnover differential do battle. That's not the case this week. While the Patriots are still tied for second in the league with a plus-11 turnover differential, San Diego ranks tied for 16th in the NFL at minus-1 for the season. New England has 20 takeaways as compared to just 13 for San Diego. The Patriots have a mere nine turnovers – still all from Brady with six interceptions and three fumbles – while the Chargers have 14. Rivers has lost just one of his six fumbles on the season, but he did have five of his 10 interceptions on the season in consecutive October losses to the Broncos and Dolphins, though both those games were on the road and just three of his 10 picks have come at home. New England's takeaways have dried up a bit of late. After notching two or more takeaways in six of the first nine games of the year, New England has had just two total in the last three weeks. Road teams are always looking to sway the momentum and negate a home-field advantage and turnovers may be the best way to do that. Rivers has been pretty secure with the ball for the most part in 2014, but he is also a guy that's been loose with the football at inopportune times in his career past. A good way for the Patriots to get on the winning track would be to pick things up on defense in terms of forcing turnovers.

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  1. Start 'em up – **The Patriots punted on each of their first two drives last week in San Diego. That allowed the Packers to build an early lead and to seemingly play the game on their terms. The slow starts were a problem for New England early in the season as well. The Patriots also punted on three-and-outs on the first two drives two weeks ago against the Lions. That's not a good trend the last couple weeks. It's also not how New England plays its best games or how to take a home crowd out of the mix. Belichick also likes to point out that the team always tries to get off to a fast start, but that's clearly a key factor when Brady is leading an offense that's at its best and allows the defense to do its thing most successfully. Whether it's through the running game or the pass, New England certainly will be focused on trying to get the offense moving early in San Diego. It wouldn't be surprising for the unit to use some up-tempo looks and no-huddle to achieve that goal, as that's often a tactic for Josh McDaniels when he looks to kick-start the attack.

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  1. 3rd down D – **The Patriots couldn't get off the field with any consistency on third down last week – outside the red zone anyway – in Green Bay. The Chargers had no trouble staying on the field in the comeback in Baltimore, going a crazy 9-for-11 on the NFL's money down. San Diego actually has the NFL's No. 3 third down offense for the season, converting on 47.5 percent of its chances. The Patriots third down defense now ranks 22nd in the league, allowing a 42.9 conversion rate. As much as the Patriots need to stay on the field on third down on offense early in the game, the New England defense needs to show it can get to the sideline. San Diego can spread the defense out with a diverse if not overwhelming passing attack. That includes second-year receiver Keenan Allen. But he will likely see a lot of Darrelle Revis on the day and that should be a problem for the youngster. The rest of the complementary targets bear watching. Antonio Gates is second on the team with 47 catches and leads the squad with nine touchdowns. But the aging Pro Bowler hasn't had a touchdown in the last four games and hasn't been generally as productive over the second half of the season. Eddie Royal, Malcolm Floyd and running back Branden Oliver are also complementary weapons that must be dealt with. One of the biggest issues for the Patriots third down defense hasn't been the coverage, though, it's been an utter lack of a pass rush. San Diego has a banged up line that's been susceptible to pressure at times, and this could be a chance for New England to dial up a few more blitzes or stunts to disrupt Rivers. Regardless, if New England can't get off the field against a very good third down offense it could be a long, hard-fought game in San Diego.

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  1. Health watch –** The Patriots are beginning to pile up some injuries. How serious those ailments are could be a key factor in this game and the coming weeks. Key contributors like Dont'a Hightower (shoulder), Kyle Arrington (ankle), Dan Connolly (ankle), Brandon LaFell (shoulder) and Julian Edelman (thigh) were limited in practice this week and are questionable to play on Sunday night. Hightower is the newest and most concerning of the injuries. He's been a solid force in the middle of the defense since Jerod Mayo landed on IR. He's also run the show as a playcaller. There is virtually no depth at linebacker and if Hightower were to miss action, Jamie Collins would be the lone remaining player with significant experience in New England. That's a scary thought. Arrington also bears watching given Logan Ryan's struggles of late. The veteran slot corner is a key cog, especially against a veteran like Royal. The Patriots are a very talented team with depth across the roster. But the depth at certain positions, or a group of players missing action at the same time, would certainly be a concern. On the positive, Chandler Jones is questionable once again as he practiced on limited basis all week looking to return from his five-game absence to a hip injury. The Patriots have been relatively healthy all season, but the growing injury report could be a growing concern. The team's inactive list, out 90-minutes before kickoff on Sunday night, will be worth keeping an eye on.

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Prediction: **First things first, the Patriots are the better team in this game. But they're also on the road. And coming off their first loss in two months. And facing a San Diego team that had an emotional comeback on the road that might be charged up (see what I did there?) to build on that as a potential top playoff contender. Health and emotion could be important in this game. On the field, I just don't see the Chargers putting the kind of pressure on Brady that Green Bay did. And despite a secondary that includes Pro Bowl talents Weddle and Brandon Flowers, I don't see the San Diego defense that likes to send pressures being able to squash the Patriots passing attack. Gronkowski is due for a major breakout game. Gronk has been held scoreless the last two games, he hasn't gone three games without a touchdown since early 2011. He's ready to explode. The Patriots should be able to run, pass and protect against San Diego, even if the Chargers defense is supposedly a top-10 unit. On the other side I think Revis will take Allen out of the picture. The depth of the Patriots secondary has to match up with the depth of Rivers' receivers. If they can't do that, it will be a problem and might show that we overrated that aspect of the team. I don't expect that to be the case. In the end I think the Patriots will force at least a pair of turnovers, Gronkowski will spur the passing attack, Blount will balance it out and the Patriots will pull away for the 36-24 victory. New England needs to start faster and finish better to get back to winning. I think Belichick's team will do that to make the most of a week of work in San Diego.

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