Welcome to Season 10, Episode 8 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
The last time the Patriots saw the Chargers, they defeated them so thoroughly that we got an idea of what the Jets would look like in powder blue.
The 2020 Patriots season feels like a transitional one and maybe even a lost one in retrospect, but remember, there was a time of genuine hope fairly deep into the schedule.
In Week 13 last season, the Patriots traveled to Los Angeles and systematically dismantled rookie quarterback Justin Herbert and the Chargers, 45-0, to improve to 6-6.
It was the most complete game they would play all season. (So much for hope, they’d win just one more afterward, finishing 7-9.) Herbert was held to 85 yards passing in the first half and 209 overall. Devin McCourty returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown. Gunner Olszewski returned a punt for a TD. The Patriots ran for 165 yards on 43 carries.
The game was even more lopsided than the Patriots’ 41-point win over the Jets last Sunday. It was a Bill Belichick, All Three Phases masterpiece.
So we should expect a similar thrashing of the Chargers Sunday, right? Well, no. While the Patriots come into this one feeling swell after their 54-13 win over the Jets in which rookie quarterback Mac Jones eclipsed 300 passing yards for the first time, these are not the same Chargers.
It’s hard to believe Herbert, who has thrown for 1,771 yards and 14 touchdowns in six games, will be as thoroughly perplexed this time as he was against the Patriots as a rookie. But the biggest change is that Anthony Lynn is out and Brandon Staley is in as coach. Lynn’s Chargers were stunningly undisciplined during last year’s meeting, twice getting called for having too many men on the field on a punt, among other transgressions.
Staley, just 38, is a bright and bold coach whose roots are on the defensive side (he coached the Rams’ No. 1-ranked defense last year) but is unafraid of taking risks on offense out of belief in Herbert and the talent around him. The Chargers have converted 8 of 12 fourth-down attempts this year, including 4 of 6 in their own territory. This is a good Chargers team, and an unpredictable one.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started …
Three players I’ll be watching other than the QBs
Hunter Henry: When we talk about the Patriots’ successful free agent signings this past offseason, the conversation begins with Matthew Judon. But Henry’s name had better come up immediately thereafter. The tight end, who spent his first five seasons with the Chargers, started slowly after signing a three-year, $37.5 million deal with the Patriots during their free agent spending spree, catching just five passes for 72 yards in the first two games. But he’s just kept getting better since, and all of a sudden he’s working on a four-game streak with a receiving touchdown, which is two shy of Rob Gronkowski’s franchise record (set in 2011). Henry has 25 touchdowns in 62 career games. Here’s how that compares with the TD production through 62 career games for the best tight ends to play for the Patriots or the Chargers:
Gronkowski: 51 touchdowns in 62 games, 90 in his career.
Antonio Gates: 35, 116 in his career, the record for a tight end. (Think Gronk can get another 26?)
Kellen Winslow Sr.: 32, finished with 45. (Would have guessed more.)
All-World Russ Francis: 20, finished with 40.
Ben Coates: 18, finished with 50.
Bet Henry keeps the streak alive in his NFL homecoming.
Keenan Allen: The nine-year veteran has long been one of the most underrated receivers of his era. Allen is seventh among active players in receptions (663) and 12th in receiving yards (7,816), and his streak of three 1,000-yard seasons ended last year … when he finished with 992 yards. (The Chargers couldn’t get him 8 more yards?) Allen is not a deep threat — he’s averaging 10.2 yards per catch since the beginning of the 2020 season — but he’s dangerous in the slot or outside and has an instinctive rapport with Herbert. Stephon Gilmore locked him down during last season’s matchup (five catches on 11 targets, 45 yards), but the cornerback was gifted to the Carolina Panthers for the pittance of a 2023 sixth-round pick, so Steve Belichick and the Patriots defensive staff will have to find another solution. J.C. Jackson, who collected his third interception of the season against the Jets, would seem to be in line for the assignment, but the Patriots also have to be wary of Mike Williams, who has six receiving touchdowns to Allen’s one.
Derwin James: Belichick will never rave about another opposing defensive player the way he used to about Ed Reed, but it’s a fair bet the versatile James is one of his current favorites. James is listed as a safety, but the Chargers move him all over the field — into the slot, outside, sometimes even on the edge. He’s back to health after missing 11 games in 2019 because of a foot injury and all of last season with a knee injury, and he’s been productive in all sorts of ways. He’s the only player in the league this season with at least 50 tackles, multiple sacks, a forced fumble, and an interception. Beware, Mac. You’ll be seeing him everywhere.
Grievance of the week
This week’s grievance was going to be about the Jets’ supposed grievances after the Patriots dropped 20 points on them in the fourth quarter last Sunday. Pretty much every national sports website that aggregates content had some postgame headline saying the Jets were ticked off, feeling like the Patriots ran up the score.
Here’s the thing, though: There really wasn’t any complaining from the Jets at all. A reporter for The Athletic tweeted that offensive tackle Morgan Moses and others were bothered, but there was no elaboration or quotes. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said there were things he didn’t want to talk about, but it was their job to stop the Patriots and they didn’t. Coach Robert Saleh, noting his team was shorthanded, hinted at some annoyance during a sports radio interview on Monday, but it came across as more matter-of-fact than whiney. “It’s the NFL, it’s not like Alabama vs. William & Mary,” Saleh said. “It’s the NFL. We’re all professional athletes. If you don’t want to get scored on, you gotta stop ‘em. Is it something I would do? Probably not, but to each his own.” So the grievance here isn’t with the Jets (for once). It’s with the exaggerations and vagaries about their feelings after a 41-point loss.
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler vs. the Patriots’ defense
The Patriots’ No. 1 assignment is to perplex Herbert enough to prevent him from hitting big plays down the field. If they manage to do so, his safety valve should be Ekeler, who has 27 receptions on 32 targets for 242 yards and three touchdowns. The running back showed up on the injury report late in the week with a hip issue, but Staley said he was optimistic Ekeler would be ready to go Sunday.
The Chargers had better hope so. Backups Joshua Kelley and Justin Jackson represent a significant drop-off as all-around threats. Ekeler has contributed at least 48 receiving yards in four of the last five games. The Patriots would need to prioritize accounting for him in the passing game at all times.
The speedy running back is less worrisome as a running threat, even though the Patriots have had trouble with similar jittery runners at times. The Chargers average just 95 rushing yards per game. Ekeler has been productive — he’s 20th in the NFL with 356 rushing yards, and has four touchdowns on the ground.
But in the Chargers’ 34-6 loss to the Ravens in Week 6 before their bye, Ekeler was held to 7 yards on six carries. He still chipped in with four catches for 48 yards, but Baltimore’s defense effectively took him away as an option on the pass and run.
The Patriots have seen Ekeler before. In Week 13 last season, he ran for 36 yards on eight carries, a fine 4.5-yard average, but he was in effect nullified by the Chargers having to rely on the pass after falling behind, 28-0 at halftime and 38-0 after three quarters. He did contribute four catches for 32 yards, but on an inefficient nine targets.
The Patriots should be able to solve him again. They feature the NFL’s 11th-ranked rush defense (105.6 yards per game), and they’re trending the right way. After allowing a season-high 152 rushing yards to the Jets in Week 2, they limited them to 62 last Sunday. Rookie second-round pick Christian Barmore is starting to draw some notice as a run-stuffer, with strong performances against the Cowboys and Jets the past two weeks.
Prediction, or does anyone else miss Dan Fouts? No, just me?
The Chargers are a talented team, sort of a junior varsity version of the Cowboys. They’re coming off their bye, and they should be feeling good about themselves and the potential for ascension in the AFC West pecking order now that the Chiefs look like they won’t be winning another Super Bowl any time soon. The Patriots aren’t going to beat the Chargers, 45-0, again. A win, by any method or style, will count as a good one.
The method they should use is obvious: run the football, and run it some more. The Chargers have allowed the second-most rushing yards in the league (975), trailing only the Texans (1,020). But it’s actually worse than that. Among the 15 worst run defenses in the league, the Chargers are the only to have had their bye. The Chargers allow a league-worst 5.4 yards per carry.
This should be a huge day for Damien Harris, who is coming off his second straight 100-yard rushing game. And there could be open field to be found for whichever backup — Rhamondre Stevenson (inactive last week) or J.J. Taylor (two TDs last week) — gets the understudy role.
The Patriots need this one. There are no more moral victories like they got stuck with against the Buccaneers and Cowboys. They’re capable of making the playoffs — 9-8 might do the trick in the AFC — but they need to start stacking up wins against competent teams. Unlike last year, the Chargers are competent. What they don’t know is that they’re about to become the Patriots’ first truly satisfying win of the season. Patriots 31, Chargers 30.
Chad Finn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.