8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: New England -3.5
The race for the postseason is heating up as the regular season continues to wind down, as the New England Patriots travel across country to face the San Diego Chargers in a potential Playoff Preview. Even after last weekend’s 26-21 loss at Green Bay, which snapped a seven-game winning streak, the Patriots (9-3) remain in the driver’s seat in the AFC thanks to holding all of the tiebreakers against the other three division leaders. Indeed, Bill Belichick’s charges have managed to defeat the likes of the Broncos (43-21), Bengals (43-17), and Colts (42-20) each at varying points of the campaign. Few teams perform like New England this time of year, for with Tom Brady starting under Center, they are a ridiculous 45-7 in the month of December since 2001. Furthermore, consider the fact that four of those losses have come against the Miami Dolphins, and Brady and Co. have dropped just three games in this particular month over the course of fourteen years! (Omit 2008, which he missed all of due to a knee injury). And it’s with that in mind that the Patriots look to rebound from their defeat at Lambeau Field, where the Packers shredded their defense for 478 yards, the most relinquished all season. The hosts jumped out to an early lead, scoring thirteen unanswered points in the First Quarter before the Pats finally managed to get on the board in the second stanza. Nothing the defense could do managed to slow down Aaron Rodgers, who burned Belichick’s Secondary for 348 yards. It was a humbling experience for a unit that was unable to force a turnover for just the third time this year. Offensively, Brady led them to 320 yards, but just 84 of that total came on the ground as the running game which has been so effective this year was never much of a factor.
Though it’s quite a trek from Foxboro to San Diego, Belichick’s decided to fly straight to the West Coast following their brief stay in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Then again, could you blame them given the shift in weather? With that said, the Patriots must consider themselves in a great position to continue their march to the Playoffs for one simple fact: Brady has never lost to Chargers’ Quarterback Philip Rivers, including a pair of postseason meetings. In fact, since Rivers became the starter in 2006, New England is 5-1 against them, with that lone loss again coming in Brady’s injury-lost campaign of 2008. In six career contests against the Chargers, Brady has completed 67.4% of his attempts for an average of 300.3 yards, with twelve touchdowns and four interceptions, amassing a Passer Rating of 98.9. He would benefit greatly from the Ground Game, which has sputtered since trampling Indianapolis for 246 yards three weeks ago; the following two weeks didn’t prove nearly as fruitful in that regard, as the Pats managed to rush for 174 yards, good for 87.0 yards per game. Then again, it’s been either or feast or famine for New England all season in the trenches; despite averaging 110.9 rushing yards, their lowest figure since 2009, the Patriots have only surpassed the 100-yard threshold on four occasions thus far, averaging 184.5 in those contests but a mere 74.1 yards in all other outings. In fact, they have been relegated to fewer than 80 yards five times thus far. Injuries along an unsettled Offensive Line played a major role in their struggles earlier in the term, while even more injuries decimated the Backfield, which was the prime factor in Belichick pouncing on LaGarrette Blount once he was released by the Steelers two weeks ago. Blount rushed for 772 yards and seven touchdown for New Engalnd last season before signing with Pittsburgh during Free Agency, but quickly fell out of favor with their Coaching Staff, leading to his dismissal after walking off the field during a game. Belichick clearly trusts him, evidenced by the 22 carries he’s received over the last two weeks, more than any other Tailback on the roster. With Shane Vereen (ankle) Questionable for tonight’s game and Stevan Ridley languishing on Injured Reserve, look for the big ‘Back to get plenty of snaps against the Chargers.
Meanwhile, San Diego (8-4) isn’t too bad in the latter stages of the season either, folks, for Philip Rivers has earned quite the reputation as a late bloomer. Since becoming the starting Quarterback, the eleventh-year veteran has accumulated a 34-7 record in the months of December and January (excluding the Playoffs), completing 62.8% of his attempts for 221.8 yards, 71 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. On many occasions, he has led the Chargers’ rally from a slow start to the season, which is precisely what he did in 2013; this time a year ago, Mike McCoy’s charges were all but done at 5-7, but Rivers led them to four consecutive victories,’culminating in their first Playoff Birth since 2009. During that particular December he was on fire completing 66.0% of his attempts for an average of 219.4 yards, with ten touchdowns and three interceptions. And it looks like he’s back to his old tricks; in last weekend’s miraculous 34-33 comeback at Baltimore, the visitors trailed the entire game, but were aided by a questionable Pass Interference Penalty in the End Zone, giving them new life and the opportunity for Rivers to find Eddie Royal for the game-winning score. San Diego outscored the hosts 21-10 in the final stanza, with their Quarterback putting forth a stellar 34-of-45 performance for 383 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Though they committed a pair of early turnovers, the Chargers were nearly flawless on Third Down, converting on nine of their eleven attempts (81.8%).
However, this team’s immediate future will hinge on their ability to battle through a rash of injuries that have plagued them since their 5-1 start. The Offensive Line has been ravaged so much that they are currently on their fourth starting Centrer this season. At this point, McCoy has had to resort to shuffling players at different positions. Nick Hardwick (neck), Rich Ohrnberger (back), and Doug Legursky (knee) have all landed on Injured Reserve, while Right Tackle D.J. Fluker is expected to miss tonight’s contest with a concussion. So needless to say, protection could be a real problem for Rivers, who has taken a beating over the past few months. Sacked 23 times this far, all but seventeen of that number have come in the past six games. McCoy will need to utilize the running game which has gotten healthier over the past few weeks, particularly with the return of Tailback Ryan Matthews. The oft-injured former First Round Pick missed all but five games this far with a strained hamstring, which is a shame because he has been by far and away San Diego’s most effective rusher; Matthews has racked up 284 yards and three touchdowns in limited action, and his 4.4 yards are by far and away tops among Tailbacks on the roster. He was an integral part of their sudden burst to the postseason last December, averaging 118.3 yards over the final four games of the campaign. However, after 105 yards on a dozen carries in a 27-24 victory over St. Louis two weeks ago, he could only muster 44 yards versus the Ravens’ Defensive Front last Sunday.