Patriots maturing before our eyes

Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's game against the Chargers in San Diego (4:15 p.m. ET):

Mike: When the Patriots have played on the West Coast under Bill Belichick, they have left one day early to get acclimated to the time change and everything that comes with such a long trip. They'll do so again, Tedy, leaving on Friday after practice. As the Patriots prepare for this big test, the topic we want to start with this week is Belichick and what you see from your former coach in terms of how working with the team's younger players seems to have energized him a bit.

Tedy: There is nothing that gives a coach more satisfaction than when you see results on the field. What he's seeing now is results from younger players. If you have a 13-year veteran, you pretty much know what you have, but right now, Bill Belichick has a lot of young players, so it's different. These are players he has coached since their NFL infancy. They come in as babies. They've been thrown into the fire and his coaching is on full display. To see them do well -- from Brandon Tate, to Brandon Spikes, to Jermaine Cunningham, right down the line -- it has to be very satisfying for him. I think that's why we've seen Belichick react the way he has after some of the games -- high-fiving people in Miami, hugging Deion Branch after the Baltimore win. You saw the utter joy coming out of him.

Mike: The idea of starting off with Belichick comes from a fan question from our weekly podcast. That's something we're going to do on a weekly basis -- include one fan question into the breakdown. Readers can submit questions to our weekly mailbag or on Twitter. Before getting into details of the Patriots and Chargers, let's just step back briefly and assess where the Patriots, at 4-1, are from an NFL perspective.

Tedy: Nobody should scare the Patriots out there. Looking around the league, I think they can realistically feel that when they play well, they can beat any of these teams.

Mike: Usually when we break down the games, we focus mostly on offense and defense, but I think this is a week where special teams should be highlighted first. The Chargers have had a lot of trouble in this area, surrendering a punt return for a touchdown and two kickoff returns for touchdowns, and have had two blocked punts. Because of that, special teams gets top billing this week as an area that could have a big impact in this game. Chargers coach Norv Turner called the Patriots' special teams the best his team has faced to this point. Breakdowns on special teams are a big reason the Chargers are 2-4.

Tedy: You go after these guys. The Chargers have issues everywhere on special teams and I see Patriots special teams coach Scott O'Brien trying to exploit them. It's a copycat league; if you see something like a punt rush that works, maybe you try it but on a different side. That's what the Patriots did against the Dolphins when Patrick Chung blocked the punt. The Jets ran a similar concept the week before, but from the opposite side. Another factor to keep in mind is that the Chargers' kicker, Nate Kaeding, slipped when kicking a field goal last week and he isn't expect to be kicking this week because of injury. So the Chargers need some big help in that area.

Patriots defense vs. Chargers offense

Mike: On paper, Tedy, you look at this Chargers offense and it's impressive. San Diego ranks first in the NFL in total yards per game, total passing yards and first downs per game. But I thought Turner made a good point this week when he said stats can be deceiving, especially when they've given up three returns for touchdowns, which has put their offense right back on the field.

Tedy: They have had problems, specifically on the offensive line. They went into St. Louis last week and the Rams had seven sacks of Philip Rivers. The Chargers never really got anything going. There are some injuries that they are dealing with -- Malcom Floyd, a big receiver, and of course tight end Antonio Gates. Also, you don't have Vincent Jackson and I think that's something that has hurt them all year. There have been questions along the way. Is he going to come back? Is general manager A.J. Smith going to make the deal that makes him happy? It looked like yes then it looked like no. When that happens in a contract situation, there can be indecisiveness in the locker room and it can affect your psyche and be a distraction.

Mike: Gates will be a top priority for the Patriots. He leads the Chargers with 31 catches and seven touchdowns and Belichick said this week that he always seems open. There are some questions as to whether Gates will play with that left toe injury, and how effective he will be if he does. This is a huge pregame storyline.

Tedy: Going up against a Chargers team without Gates is like going up against the Colts without Dallas Clark. You game-plan those guys, the ones that affect the middle of the field, the red zone. They do so many different things and this is where defensive coordinators spend a lot of time -- how to control the pass-catching weapon at the tight end position. We've seen some mixed messages that the Chargers are sending on Gates, saying they are hopeful he will play. I don't think we'll clearly know until the end of the week.

Mike: When it comes to the Chargers' running game, Patriots defenders describe it as a hard-charging, downhill-type of a style. Ryan Mathews, the Chargers' first-round draft choice, has 55 carries for 282 yards, while Mike Tolbert has 66 rushes for 295 yards and five touchdowns. Add in the quicker Darren Sproles and it's a nice trio.

Tedy: Once they get that running game going, it opens up other things in Turner's offense. Turner said early in the season that he wanted to get Mathews a lot touches, although a high ankle sprain has slowed Mathews down a bit. They are bringing him along slowly because they want him for the long haul and last week against the Rams he looked like he was healthy again and very quick on that FieldTurf in the Rams' dome. A steady dose of Mathews is what the Patriots can anticipate getting.

Mike: The Patriots' run defense did a nice job on Ray Rice last week. Two players that seemed to play their best games as pros were rookie inside linebacker Brandon Spikes and rookie outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham. What are your thoughts on those two?

Tedy: As a whole, these guys have incredible potential. I think they've been good. At the same time, there is room for improvement. Spikes can recognize the play-action pass better. He is sometimes biting up on the run and vacating his zone behind him in the passing game. That can be fixed in time. Cunningham is showing up athletically and making plays on the edge in the pass rush. That's a huge positive. Sometimes you can't teach that -- either a guy can pass rush or he can't. He can work on setting the edge and when to engage blockers, when to get off, and when to place both of those hands into the breastplate and press him out with his upper-body strength and then shedding the blocker. Again, this all comes with more game reps. I really like these young 'backers.

Mike: And any mention of the run defense should also highlight Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, the two leaders of the defense. Wilfork showed his athleticism and smarts once again playing end, while Mayo is a tackling machine, on pace for 208 tackles this season.

Tedy: The Ravens had success with off-tackle runs in the playoff game last year and that probably contributed to the Patriots' playing Wilfork at end. Whether that continues will be something to watch. It was a great adjustment for that game. A player like Wilfork could handle moving around -- he's that good, that smart, one of the best in the league. But coaches might also want to limit how much they move young players around. Moving from position to position on a week-to-week basis can sometime confuse inexperienced players. Jerod is turning into the linebacker that we all anticipated. His ability is plain to see when watching the games, but what always most impressed me about Jerod was the incredible maturity he showed at such an early point into his career. That maturity has helped develop him into one of the clear leaders of that team.

Patriots offense vs. Chargers defense

Mike: This is a different Chargers defense than we've seen in past years in terms of top personnel. There is no more Shawne Merriman at outside linebacker and Jamal Williams at nose tackle. They are the NFL's No. 1-rated unit in terms of fewest yards allowed, fewest first downs allowed, and most sacks per pass play. At the same time, I'm sure not sure they've seen an offense like the Patriots'. Let's not forget that the Patriots lead the NFL in scoring.

Tedy: This offense moves the ball. Tom Brady can now survey the field and move the ball methodically down the field. That's the way it's going to be. It was fun watching these guys last week. On the other side, the Chargers are tough against the pass. But their run defense is the weakness. The last two weeks, they've allowed a 100-yard rusher. The Patriots probably won't have an individual 100-yard rusher, but having success running the ball collectively as an offense is something I wouldn't be surprised to see.

Mike: I would imagine the Patriots will have confidence in their passing game as well, but if they see running the ball as the best way to go, they've shown they will stick with that type of approach too. When it comes to the running attack, the Patriots have gotten quite the boost from Danny Woodhead. He's giving the Patriots some of the same things Kevin Faulk did.

Tedy: The Patriots have to like his ability to be a receiver as well. It gives Tom Brady another option, a checkdown that he knows will be there. Durability is a question some have because of his size, but it will help him that he has other backs there too, as they will all get their playing time.

Mike: You've made the point that we're seeing this offense change right before our eyes.

Tedy: It's that methodical approach, working your way down the field. With that, everything is magnified. Every short pass. Every penalty you may commit. Every sack you may give up. This is no longer an offense that has Randy Moss and can get that 40 to 50 yards in one strike. You have to be efficient, and that means catching the ball. They had quite a few drops last week, from Wes Welker all the way to Danny Woodhead. These guys can be even better.

Mike: Both of us were surprised at how quickly Deion Branch made an impact. How do you see that affecting Brandon Tate's role?

Tedy: Tate's role going forward will be affected by the emergence of Branch. I thought initially that Tate should be starting, even with Branch coming back. But I was wrong on that. Branch came in, the chemistry that was there is something that I think surprised all of us, and so that will affect Tate. You can't overlook that relationship and chemistry. That's what football is sometimes, when you just know a guy so well. For me, it was like playing next to Mike Vrabel. Sometimes we didn't have to communicate. I knew what Vrabes was going to do, or Rosevelt Colvin, or Roman Phifer or Ted Johnson. We moved as one and that's what made those units so special. You see Brady has that with Branch. It was right off the bat. I was shocked myself, to see them making some of those timing throws.

Mike: When looking closer at the Chargers' personnel, does anything stand out?

Tedy: Last week against the Rams, cornerback Antoine Cason was targeted consistently. Part of the reason is that on the other side, you have Quentin Jammer and he's playing good football. He's a good cover corner. Is he in that shutdown corner conversation? I need to see more, but if you have a weakness on the other side, that's what teams will attack.

Mike: Let's wrap it up with predictions, Tedy. Before the season, this was a game that I had pegged as a loss for the Patriots. But based on the shifts we've seen in recent weeks -- the Patriots playing well and developing confidence, and the Chargers dealing with some injuries and showing some noticeable signs of weakness -- I'm going to switch it. I can't pick a Chargers team from which I don't know what I'm getting. They can be explosive -- both to the opposition and to themselves. So I'll go with the Patriots, 27-21.

Tedy: Let me state this clearly, this is a trap game. What coach Bill Parcells used to do for some of these games is hang mouse traps in the locker room to remind players to stay focused. The Patriots are coming off a huge win over the Baltimore Ravens. Everyone is excited that this team has finally arrived. The Patriots themselves are feeling very confident, as they should. Now, you're going up a against a struggling 2-4 team that has injuries to key players. Will the Pats let their guard down? I think not. This is a week where coaches earn their money not so much for game plans, but for keeping their teams humble and focused. Belichick is the best in the business at doing that. Pats win, but get pushed to the limit, 30-27.

Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.