The 5-6 New England Patriots will look to keep their playoff hopes alive Sunday as they visit the 3-8 Los Angeles Chargers in the first leg of an L.A. back-to-back.
Time: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
Location: SoFi Stadium, Inglewood, Calif.
Line: Chargers -1.5
The Patriots bounced back from their Week 11 loss to the Houston Texans by upsetting the Arizona Cardinals on a last-second 50-yard field goal by Nick Folk.
That win kept the Patriots in the playoff hunt, though they’ll likely need to win out to have a chance to qualify. They currently sit 10th in the AFC standings, two games back of the final wild-card spot.
The Chargers lost yet another close game to a quality opponent Sunday, falling to the AFC East-leading Bills 27-17 in Buffalo.
Head coach Anthony Lynn was lambasted this week for his incomprehensible game management, which was especially poor on a last-gasp Chargers drive that reached the Bills’ 1-yard line before stalling in spectacular fashion.
Seven of L.A.’s eight losses this season have been one-possession games. Their three wins have come over the Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets — teams with a combined record of 3-29-1.
Twelve Patriots players are listed as questionable, including quarterback Cam Newton, who was limited in all three practices this week:
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley (groin)
DT Adam Butler (shoulder
DT Byron Cowart (back)
S Kyle Dugger (toe)
K Nick Folk (back)
TE Ryan Izzo (hamstring, hand)
CB J.C. Jackson (hip)
FB Jakob Johnson (knee)
G Shaq Mason (calf)
QB Cam Newton (abdomen)
WR Matthew Slater (knee)
RB J.J. Taylor (quadricep)
All 12 made the trip to L.A.
The Chargers listed linebacker Denzel Perryman (back) as doubtful and listed four players as questionable:
RB Kalen Ballage (ankle)
CB Casey Hayward Jr.(groin)
DE Uchenna Nwosu (chest)
WR Joe Reed (ribs)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Cam Newton, Patriots quarterback
After four straight weeks of steady offensive improvement, Newton endured one of the worst statistical outings of his career last Sunday, throwing for just 84 yards (a career low) and posting a 23.6 passer rating (also a career low) while tossing two interceptions (his first since Week 7) against Arizona.
Newton’s best performances this season (Seahawks, Jets, Texans) have come against teams ranked in the bottom 10 in Football Outsiders’ pass defense DVOA. The Chargers are a mediocre 17th in that metric but 10th in passing yards allowed per game and per attempt.
We’ll be closely watching how New England’s offense performs early in this game. Slow starts have plagued the Patriots, who rank dead last in first-quarter scoring. They were second in that category last season and haven’t ranked outside the top 10 since 2013.
The Patriots also rank 30th in first-half points per game and have led at halftime in just three of their 11 games. They altered their practice schedule this week in an effort to buck this trend, jumping straight into team drills after warmups.
Justin Herbert, Chargers quarterback
The Chargers found a good one in Herbert, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. The rookie garnered rave reviews this week from both Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels, who were high on him during the pre-draft process. Belichick said Herbert, who’s on pace to set rookie records for completions, passing yards and passing touchdowns, “has no weaknesses.”
But even the most talented young quarterbacks tend to struggle against the Patriots, who are 26-2 in their last 28 games against first- and second-year signal-callers, including playoffs. The last rookie QB to beat New England? Geno Smith in 2013.
Stephon Gilmore, Patriots cornerback
Last week, it was DeAndre Hopkins. This week, Keenan Allen. Gilmore likely will spend much of Sunday afternoon shadowing Allen, the Chargers’ star wideout. Allen has seen more targets than any other NFL pass-catcher this season (122), receiving at 10-plus in eight of his 11 games and 19 (!) on two occasions. He also leads the league in receptions with 85.
“Well, we’re going to target Keenan, No. 1,” Lynn said. “… Keenan has that exceptional quickness to separate and get open. I can say he identifies coverages and reads coverages really well, so he can find a soft spot in the defense. And once you get that chemistry, that me-to-you chemistry with him and the quarterback, that can be pretty lethal. But he’s our No. 1 target.”
Gilmore successfully limited Hopkins last Sunday, allowing just three catches on four targets for 26 yards.
Joey Bosa, Chargers defensive end
Injuries have hampered the Chargers’ star pass rusher this season, but he was an animal against the Bills last week, racking up nine tackles, three sacks, five QB hits, six tackles for loss, one pass breakup and one fumble recovery. Belichick called Bosa “a one-man wrecking crew.”
“Bosa’s one of the most disruptive players in the league,” the Patriots coach said this week. “As good as anybody we play against, run or pass.”
The Patriots successfully shut down Bosa the last time these teams met, however. Marcus Cannon and Trent Brown held him to zero sacks, zero QB hits and three total pressures on 44 Tom Brady dropbacks in the 2018 divisional round.
We’ll see if Mike Onwenu, Jermaine Eluemunor and Justin Herron — Isaiah Wynn is on injured reserve and will miss at least the next two games — can replicate that effort this week.