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Scouting the Matchup: Pass protection key to victory

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN

Through Week 6, the Patriots ranked in the bottom half of the league in both rushing yards per game (102.2/19th) and rushing yards per play (4.01/21st), but they ran for a season-high 162 yards on 36 attempts last week against the Falcons. On Sunday, they'll be facing a Chargers defense that hasn't put up much resistance against the run. Los Angeles entered last Sunday's 21-0 victory over Denver ranked last among NFL teams in run defense (152.5). Los Angeles allowed 189 yards on the ground against Kansas City and 214 against Philadelphia but limited the Broncos to 69 yards on 19 attempts. New England could use more from Mike Gillislee, who hasn't run for more than 69 yards in a game this season. That should lead to more of Dion Lewis, who has performed well as the lead back the last couple of games. Advantage: Patriots

WHEN THE CHARGERS RUN

The Chargers didn't enter the win column until they decided to increase running back Melvin Gordon's workload. After averaging 13.5 carries per game in their first four contests (all losses), Gordon gained 105 yards on 20 carries in a Week 5 victory over the Giants. He then picked up 83 yards and a touchdown on 25 rushing attempts in a Week 6 win over the Raiders. He's clearly the team's best option in the running game. The Patriots have been much better against the run since allowing 185 yards on the ground in their season-opening loss to Kansas City. Three of New England's last six opponents - New Orleans, Tampa Bay and the New York Jets - failed to rush for more than 90 yards. It's all about bottling up Gordon, who is averaging well below 4 yards per carry. Advantage: Patriots

WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS

Although the Patriots have had their issues this season, the passing game hasn't been one of them. New England has the league's top-ranked passing offense, averaging 300 yards per game. Quarterback Tom Brady has done a good job of protecting the football (two interceptions). Perhaps the only cause for concern has been pass protection, as Brady has been sacked 18 times. He was sacked 15 times in the 12 regular-season games he played in last season. The Chargers have a dangerous pass rushing tandem in defensive ends Melvin Ingram (8.5 sacks) and Joey Bosa (7.5 sacks). The team's ability to get to the quarterback is one of the reasons the Chargers rank 10th in pass defense. The onus will be on tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon to keep Brady clean. If they do, the Patriots will move it effectively through the air. Advantage: Patriots

WHEN THE CHARGERS PASS

New England's problems in this area have been well-chronicled. Despite a solid effort against the Falcons, the Patriots are the only team in NFL history to allow the opposing quarterback to pass for at least 300 yards in six straight games at any point in a season. Poor communication in the secondary and an inconsistent pass rush have been among the issues. Injuries to cornerbacks Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore haven't helped, but this was a problem area even when those two were healthy. Phillip Rivers is still a dangerous quarterback. Keenan Allen is the team's most productive wide receiver, but Gordon has proven to be a reliable option in the passing game as well. Gordon caught a career-high nine passes against the Raiders and has four receiving TDs this season. There will be an adjustment period without injured linebacker Dont’a Hightower as well.  Advantage: Chargers

SPECIAL TEAMS

Nick Novak has helped stabilize the Chargers kicking game after Los Angeles cut rookie placekicker Younghoe Koo after four games. Koo had a potential game-tying field goal blocked in a season-opening loss to Denver and missed two field goal attempts, including a potential game-winning field goal from 44 yards away, in a Week 2 loss to Miami. Both teams have been hurt by penalties on special teams this season. Although each team ranks near the bottom of the league in kickoff-return average, Travis Benjamin returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown against Denver last Sunday. Many of Stephen Gostkowski's critics have been quieted by the his strong start to the season, and Cassius Marsh blocked a field goal attempt last week. Advantage: Patriots

OTHER FACTORS

Although the Chargers have already found a way to win two close games on the road this year, the cross country flight to Foxborough and the early kickoff time will likely make this their toughest road trip of the season. One thing Los Angeles will have to avoid is a slow start, something that's become a trend for the Chargers this season. Los Angeles has been outscored (50-14) in the first quarter through its first seven games. The Patriots have performed much better in the first half this season. They've outscored their opponents 128-85 in the first two quarters and have been outscored 81-67 after halftime. For what it's worth, the Chargers are 6-18 in games decided by one score or less since the start of the 2015 season.* Advantage: Patriots*

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