By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — A few short weeks ago, this game on the schedule looked like it would be a cakewalk for the Patriots, a soft landing as they headed into their bye week. Now? Not so much.
With three straight wins, the L.A. Chargers have turned their season around. And when they visit Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon, they’ll be looking to get back to .500. In a murky AFC, a 4-4 record through eight weeks is good enough to remain squarely in the playoff picture at the season’s midway point.
But winning in Foxboro is never an easy task. Likewise, seemingly every game (save for last week’s against Atlanta) has been a struggle to varying degrees for the Patriots.
Here’s What To Watch For when this one kicks off on Sunday.
It’s always important for the Patriots to protect Tom Brady. This week, it’s exceptionally important.
The Chargers enter Sunday’s game tied for fourth in the NFL with 23 sacks. Melvin Ingram (8.5) and Joey Bosa (7.5) have done the majority of the damage, though Chris McCain’s five sacks are more than any single Patriots player has on the year.
Clearly, the Chargers have had little issue getting after the quarterback this year. And considering how central Brady has been to the Patriots offense, the task is tall for the offensive line — as well as the tight end and running back groups — this weekend.
Bosa, in particular, has been firing out of a cannon lately, registering five sacks over his last three games. It’s no coincidence that the Chargers have won all of them.
The Rushing Game
The flip side of this equation involves the Patriots’ stable of running backs — all of whom are healthy — and how they can help to minimize the impact of that Chargers pass rush.
And really, the quartet of Dion Lewis, James White, Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead should be able to follow up last week’s solid performance with another this week. The Chargers have allowed 4.9 yards per carry this season, which is the second-worst mark in the NFL. Their allowance of 140.6 rushing yards per game is dead last in the league.
The Patriots’ ground game has not been exceptional overall this year, but last week against the Falcons, the running backs combined to rush for 157 yards on 31 carries for a 5.1-yard average. For perspective, Kansas City currently leads the NFL with a 5.2-yard average per attempt.
Considering Brady’s abilities and significance to the offense, the Patriots won’t ever climb into the top five in rushing this season. But they are capable of having impressive showings in individual games. On Sunday, they not only should have such a performance, but they’ll have to.
The Gilmore Factor
Stephon Gilmore has received tremendous criticism early on in his career as a Patriot. Some of it has been deserved, some of it has been overkill, but the bottom line is that the big-money corner has played to his capabilities this season.
And it just so happened that when Gilmore missed the past two weeks, the Patriots’ pass defense has seemingly gotten its act together. At long last, the Patriots prevented an opposing quarterback from throwing for 300 yards last week for the first time all year.
Now recovered from his concussion, Gilmore is set to return to the field. And all eyes will be on him and the defensive backfield to see if that collective improvement continues or whether it takes a step back.
What looks frightening on paper for the Patriots is the number of Chargers receivers with double-digit averages in yards per catch. Keenan Allen (13.5), Hunter Henry (14.3), Tyrell Williams (14.2) and Travis Benjamin (17.1) are all candidates to break a huge gain, an issue that’s plagued the Patriots’ defense for much of the year. Together, that quartet has combined for 18 receptions of 20 or more yards.
Despite the positive showing last week, the Patriots still rank second-to-last in pass yards allowed per attempt (8.4), they still allow the most passing yards per game (310), and they’ve still given up the second-longest pass play of the year (a 78-yard Kareem Hunt touchdown on opening night).
The Patriots’ defense figures to be tested by Philip Rivers in this one. But if Gilmore can play like the guy who enticed Bill Belichick to spend tens of millions of dollars, it could be the type of game that has an impact on how the second half of the season plays out for the Patriots.
A Historic Tight End Summit
For the first time in a long time, Antonio Gates and Rob Gronkowski will share a field. They are without a doubt two of the greatest tight ends in NFL history, and with Gates slowing down a bit at age 37, it’ll likely be their last ever meeting.
Gates has just 13 receptions for 119 yards and a touchdown this year, while Gronkowski has 29 catches for 452 yards and four touchdowns. It won’t quite be a high-octane matchup of the two, but it still figures to be historic, given the accomplishments of Gates and the potential of Gronkowski.
Gates holds the all-time record for receiving touchdowns by a tight end at 112; the 28-year-old Gronkowski ranks third with 72. Gates ranks third all-time in receiving yards by a tight end with 11,311; Gronkowski ranks 12th with 6,547.
The two have played against each other just three times — in 2010, 2011 and 2014. In those three games, Gronkowski has caught 14 passes for 183 yards and four touchdowns. Gates has caught nine passes for 84 yards and one touchdown.
With Tony Gonzalez retiring after 2013 and with Gates and Jason Witten perhaps heading that way sooner than later, these matchups are few and far between.