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Patriots vs. Chargers preview

When: 8:30 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego TV: NBC

SAN DIEGO -- December has arrived for the San Diego Chargers, which means it’s time for Philip Rivers to work his magic.

Rivers has a 30-6 record in the final month of the regular season, the most wins among NFL starting quarterbacks since 2006. The Chargers need Rivers playing at his best, as they face the toughest closing schedule in the NFL, facing teams with a combined record of 32-16.

“The quarterback and the head coach get a record attached to them, but that’s our record in December and that’s the Chargers' record in December over the last [several] years,” Rivers said. “I just think that it shows a lot about what I’ve always said, which is about the character of our team, the toughness of our team, and we’ve finished strong in years where we were 13-3 or 11-5 those years.

“We’ve finished strong in years when we were 7-9 or 8-8 and I think that just shows whatever situation it is we are going to fight like crazy at the end and have that mentality to finish it off the right way.”

The Chargers face a team with an equally impressive December record in the New England Patriots. Tom Brady is 45-7 in December, the best record in December among quarterbacks with at least 20 starts. And head-to-head, Brady holds a 5-0 record over Rivers.

ESPN NFL Nation Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams preview the game:

Williams: Mike, how have the additions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner at cornerback changed New England’s approach defensively? Or has it?

Reiss: With Revis and Browner, the Patriots are playing a lot more man coverage and have shown the ability to match up in a number of different ways. Revis is playing at an extremely high level. Browner, who was suspended for the first four games of the regular season and didn’t play the next two as he worked to get into football shape, is now a full-time player. He brings a physical style of play at 6-foot-4, 221 pounds that is hard to replicate. With safety Devin McCourty often providing help over the top on the player Browner is covering, and Revis able to effectively eliminate his matchup, it’s as strong of a 1-2-3 punch as the Patriots have had. Last week, the Packers beat their Nos. 4-5-6 options, so I’m curious to see if the Chargers can do that.

Eric, when the top teams in the AFC are mentioned, we often hear New England and Denver, and then it’s sort of everyone else. Yet here are the Chargers at 8-4, just one game back. How deserving do you think they are of inclusion in that top group?

Williams: It’s hard to include the Chargers in that conversation among the top teams in the AFC because they have not done it consistently over the duration of the season. San Diego started 5-1 but then lost three straight, including an embarrassing 37-0 defeat at Miami. The Chargers have won three straight after regrouping during the team’s bye week. Certainly, San Diego has an elite quarterback in Rivers. But the rest of the team has to prove that they can play at the same level of their quarterback on a weekly basis to earn the status as one of the top teams in the AFC alongside Denver and New England.

There’s been a lot of talk about New England flying straight to the West Coast from Green Bay and staying in San Diego this week in preparation for Sunday’s game against the Chargers. What is Bill Belichick’s reasoning for the decision? And how successful has New England been using this approach?

Reiss: There are a few reasons for this approach, Eric. They played at Green Bay on Sunday (26-21 loss) and would have flown back to New England after that game, getting in around midnight, and then turned back around on Friday to come out to San Diego. So this lessens the travel stress on the team. Belichick also sees benefits in acclimating to the time change and weather. They did it twice in 2008 when they had two sets of back-to-back games on the West Coast. One of those games was a 30-10 loss to the Chargers in early October. They won the other three games in that situation, which was the year the Patriots lost Tom Brady to injury.

Eric, a 37-0 loss at Miami on Nov. 2 looked ugly. The Patriots had their stinker Sept. 29 in a 41-14 loss to the Chiefs on "Monday Night Football." Assuming that blowout to the Dolphins was the low point of the season, what happened for the Chargers to overcome it and win their next three games? Was there a key moment or turning point behind the scenes that could be pointed to?

Williams: A couple things occurred to get the Chargers back on track. First, they got back workhorse running back Ryan Mathews, which helped bring balance back to the offense. In three games, Mathews has a 100-yard rushing game to his credit and is averaging 5.4 yards per carry since returning to the lineup after a seven-game absence due to an MCL knee sprain. The second is San Diego’s defense has been better on third down and in the red zone. The return of linebackers Melvin Ingram, Jeremiah Attaochu and Manti Te'o from their respective injuries helped establish more depth, so defensive coordinator John Pagano can keep guys fresh and use more players in different personnel groups. The result has been San Diego holding teams to 39 percent conversions on third down in the last three games since the team’s Week 9 bye and 42 percent in the red zone.

Mike, we all understand the matchup nightmare Rob Gronkowski can be in the passing game, particularly in the red zone. What have opposing teams tried to do to limit his touches?

Reiss: A little bit of everything -- safeties, linebackers, double teams. Maybe the best way to sum it up is to relay what a Packers defensive lineman said on Sunday: "Their tight end is like the Terminator." Gronkowski’s impact on the game is apparent even when he’s not catching the ball, because multiple defenders often are gravitating toward him, opening opportunities for others. It might be hard to beat out Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for MVP consideration after what I saw Sunday, but I could make a strong case for Gronkowski.

Eric, what do you view as the Chargers’ primary areas of weakness on offense and defense?

Williams: On offense, the Chargers still struggle at times to keep Rivers clean in pass protection. Rivers is one of the most efficient quarterbacks against the blitz, but with better protection, he could create more explosive plays down the field. The Chargers could roll out their fifth starting center this season in Trevor Robinson if rookie Chris Watt cannot return from a calf injury. Defensively, San Diego has trouble generating a consistent pass rush. Defensive lineman Corey Liuget leads the team with just 3.5 sacks. The Chargers are 29th in the NFL with 18 sacks.