By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There was a time when a Patriots-Chargers matchup was must-see TV, when you were pretty much guaranteed a tooth-and-nail battle until the very end. And afterwards, Phillip Rivers would have a boatload to complain about.
Things are a lot different this time around. The Chargers call L.A. their home now, and they don’t have Pip Rivers slinging the pigskin. And there is zero potential for this weekend’s game to be a postseason preview.
The 5-6 Patriots improved their playoff odds from slim to… slightly less slim with last weekend’s win over the Cardinals. They can get back to .500 for the first time since October with a win over the 3-8 Chargers on Sunday.
It’s still an intriguing matchup, considering the Chargers can only beat bad teams this year, and the Patriots have been losing to bad teams this year. Both teams have engaged in mostly close games this season too, with eight of L.A.’s games decided by seven points or less. The Patriots have seven such games this season, with each of their last five games decided by a touchdown or less. New England has gone 3-4 in those close games, while L.A. is 2-6.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for Sunday afternoon when the Patriots and the Chargers kick off in an empty SoFi Stadium.
Happy Watching Harris
Cam Newton has been the source of many a headache in New England, and he was at his worst last Sunday. So we’ll go Cam-free in this preview as much as we can, and focus on stuff that makes us happy. Tis the season and all that junk.
And you know what makes us extremely happy? Watching Damien Harris run with the football.
Harris is a no-nonsense rusher who is willing to barrel into any and every defender in his way. He’s taken over as the No. 1 option out of the backfield and won’t be giving that up anytime soon, even with Sony Michel back in the mix.
After back-to-back games with fewer than 50 rushing yards, Harris could be primed for another breakout game against the Chargers. After running wild for a career-high 121 yards against the Ravens two weeks ago, Harris ran for just 100 yards combined against the Texans and the Cardinals. He averaged less than four yards per carry in both of those games, dropping his season average to 5.1 yards per carry.
Now he’s set to face a Chargers team that is giving up 120 yards on the ground every Sunday. L.A. has allowed 4.8 yards per carry this season, and is susceptible to long runs too, giving up 11 of 20 or more yards — the second-most in the NFL.
Run free, Damien. We love to watch you work.
Bosa Will Be Everywhere
This kid is disruptive. Just ask the Bills (or Bill).
Bosa was a wrecking ball (or a beast, or an animal — whatever he prefers) against Buffalo last week, racking up three sacks and six tackles for loss (both career highs) to go with a fumble recover and a defended pass. He was in Josh Allen’s grill all day — and had a lot to say while getting to know the Buffalo QB.
joey a savage on the mic 💀 pic.twitter.com/1d4gIxCKpY
— Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) December 2, 2020
“He’s a one-man wrecking crew,” Belichick said of Bosa this week. “I think he does everything well, really. If you just look at the Buffalo game, he made plays against the run, he made plays on short yardage, he rushed the passer in passing situations, he sacked the quarterback on play-action situations where he converted a run read into a play-action rush. He’s very instinctive. He’s got a tremendous motor. He plays hard. He never gives up on a play. He makes a lot of plays on effort and hustle.”
Sunday was Bosa’s first multi-sack game of the season, but he has nine games with at least two sacks over his career. He also had five QB hits for the second straight week, so Sunday could be a long day for Cam and the New England offensive line.
The Kid At QB
The praise was flowing from Foxboro whenever Justin Herbert came up this week. And rightfully so. The rookie has been phenomenal for the Chargers, even if he only has two wins as the starter.
In his 10 games this season, the No. 6 overall pick has completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,015 yards, 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s thrown for over 300 yards on six occasions and is two weeks removed from the best game of his young career, a 366-yard, three-touchdown afternoon where he completed 39 of his 47 passing attempts. Disclaimer: That game came against the New York Jets.
The kid has no fear, and he can make things happen even with heavy pressure coming his way.
But, given that he’s a rookie, Herbert still makes his share of mistakes. Down by a touchdown in the fourth quarter last weekend against the Bills, he threw a pretty bad pick at midfield that led to a Buffalo field goal.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) November 29, 2020
He’s pretty good at bouncing back from his mistakes though. After Buffalo made it a 10-point game, and after a sack on third-and-7, Herbert somehow completed this pass on a 4th-and-27 to keep the Chargers’ slim hopes alive.
— NFL (@NFL) November 29, 2020
L.A. didn’t do anything right after that play, bungling away a chance to tie the game with some epic clock mismanagement by Anthony Lynn. But that Hail Mary heave shows just how dangerous that right arm of Justin Herbert truly is.
Double Your Slow Start Fun!
The Patriots have stunk in the first quarter this season, a point that Bill Belichick is kinda sick of hearing about.
“Thanks for pointing that out, I appreciate it,” the coach snipped back earlier this week when asked about New England’s opening quarter woes.
Belichick said it’s been something the team has focused on all season, but nothing has really worked. The Patriots have been outscored 56-21 in the first quarter, and they’ve held just one lead heading into the second quarter. But does that lead really count when it came against the Jets?
The Chargers aren’t all that great to start games either, but they’ve been a lot better than the Patriots. Los Angeles has been outscored 60-51 in the opening frame this season, averaging just 4.6 points in the quarter. They’ve been shut out in five first quarters this season and outscored in six of them. Their best first quarter of the season came back in Week 4 when they put up 14 points against the Bucs. They lost that game, 38-31.
So don’t be too surprised if the scoreboard reads 0-0, 3-0, 3-3, or 6-3 after 15 minutes of play on Sunday. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll get a rare 2-0 first quarter out of this one.
Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-Chargers game on WBZ-TV — the home of the New England Patriots! Pregame coverage begins at 11:30 a.m. with Patriots GameDay, kickoff is set for 4:25 p.m., and after the game switch over to TV38 for full postgame reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!