We'll go into detail momentarily, but suffice to say, nearly everything went New England's way today out in L.A. And not a moment too soon.
Head coach Bill Belichick has often told us, "real football" begins after Thanksgiving. By this he means this is when regular season games become even more meaningful because of potential playoff implications.
If that's the case, then the first of his team's two scheduled games at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles this week took on added significance, particularly in light of results from other games earlier in the day.
Entering today with a 5-6 record, the Patriots clung to the thinnest of hopes of sneaking into the AFC playoffs. Several teams ahead of them in the current seedings had already secured important victories. New England therefore needed to do its part against a competitive Chargers team led by impressive rookie QB Justin Herbert.
"It's exciting. Everybody played well – offense, defense, special teams," running back Damien Harris commented to reporters afterward. "It was a team effort. We played complementary football as a team. Good to come out here to the West Coast. We played a really good team and were able to execute."
After losing the opening coin toss, the Patriots wound up getting the ball first when the Chargers deferred their choice to the second half. And while they opened the play-calling with a screen pass, it was, as usual, the rushing attack that propelled the Patriots.
New England proceeded to add a wrinkle with a couple of Wildcat plays with Harris. QB Cam Newton finished off the prolonged possession with his 10th touchdown run of the season. Of the 75 yards the Patriots traveled, 57 came on the ground between Newton and Harris.
The Patriots' defense then came up with a crucial stop, sacking Herbert on 3rd-and-10 in New England territory. L.A. kicker Michael Badgley subsequently pushed a 46-yard field goal wide right, keeping the score 7-0.
Special teams – so vital to New England's win over Arizona last week – came up big again Sunday in L.A. When the Chargers punted to Gunner Olszewski following their second possession, the second-year man broke through a few would-be tackles and returned the ball 70 yards for a score. A bit of redemption for Olszewski, who had his first NFL punt return TD called back due to a penalty by a teammate last weekend.
With that, New England took a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter.
"I think the football Gods decided to reward him today… I'm so happy for him," Harris acknowledged.
Belichick's successful track record against rookie quarterbacks – 20 wins, only five losses – speaks for itself. Hardly any first-year signal callers have ever beaten the Patriots under Belichick. New England showed why early on, blitzing Herbert repeatedly during the first half, thus causing him to throw under duress. Little surprise, then, that L.A. couldn't move the football very far.
Another stat of significance: When leading by 14 or more points at halftime, the Patriots with Belichick at the helm had won 94 consecutive games, the longest such streak in the NFL. Already up by two TDs, New England double that advantage just before intermission.
With under a minute to play, Newton muscled his way through the Charger defense and into the end zone from two yards out. Then, as Badgley attempted a 58-yard field goal with three seconds remaining, special teamer Cody Davis rushed up the middle to block it. Co-captain Devin McCourty scooped up the loose ball and raced untouched to the end zone. Kicker Nick Folk tacked on his fourth extra point to make it 28-0.
"It's huge," McCourty said of the special teams contribution overall Sunday. "We know how much time we spend on special teams, how many guys like [Matthew] Slater, [Justin] Bethel, Gunner take pride in that area. We've been talking about having big returns, making big plays. I give a lot of credit to [special teams coordinator] Cam Achord. He's been working his butt off this year to get us going. Guys stepped up. Cody with the block… it really changed the momentum going into the half."
"That was a huge play in the game," special teams co-captain Matthew Slater concurred. "Cody and Justin [Bethel] work so hard on the little things, and you just never know when the play is going to happen. We felt like we had a chance earlier in the game with what we saw. It was great for Cody to come back and execute, Mr. Patriot [McCourty] being able to scoop it and score. Just a great play, it gave us a boost. That really gives you a lot of confidence going into the locker room at halftime."
Picking up where they left off, the Patriots began the second half with a Chase Winovich interception of Herbert in L.A. real estate, setting up Newton and the offense nicely.
"I just made a play," the linebacker demurred during his postgame remarks to the media. "Shout-out to the coaches in warmups, throwing me some rockets. I've caught some of [third-string QB Brian] Hoyer's hardest throws, and that definitely had me prepared. I'm thankful I caught it."
Several minutes later, the O capitalized on the turnover when Newton hit WR N'Keal Harry on a short pass into the end zone. Folk's PAT upped the lead to 35-0.
New England's leading interceptor, cornerback J.C. Jackson, picked off Herbert later in the next L.A. drive, but would limp to the bench on the ensuing Charger possession after contesting a pass along the sideline.
Early in the fourth quarter, Olszewski would show that his earlier punt return was no fluke, taking another one 61 yards deep into Charger territory. Though he didn't get into the end zone, he helped set up a short Folk field goal which gave the Patriots a 38-0 lead.
However, Olszewski would eventually score again, this time on offense. Backup QB Jarrett Stidham entered the game in relief of Newton and found Olszewski on a deep crossing route that the receiver finished off with a long run to the end zone.
The 45-0 final score was the largest shutout loss the Chargers have ever suffered. And the Patriots did what they had to do to remain relevant in the playoff conversation.
"This game," McCourty concluded, "and last week against Arizona just felt like really good team wins. No one side had to do everything… we're at the point in the season where we've got to keep it going."
"[The shutout] puts an exclamation point on the day," added Winovich. "Coach [Belichick] always talks about playing complementary football, and today was a great example of that. Feels great to get a team win. The energy was outstanding. The California weather's nice, the stadium's beautiful… life is good."