Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's Sunday's road game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium (NBC, 8:30 p.m. ET):
Mike: Before we get deep into the X's and O's of this matchup and highlight the excellence of both teams in December in recent years, let's widen the view from the Patriots' perspective after last Sunday's loss to the Packers.
Tedy: It's a whole different set of circumstances now, with a little bit of pressure on the Patriots. They've brought themselves back to the pack in the race for the No. 1 seed. I still see them winning the AFC East, but here's the way I look at it: They have to win out if they want the top seed, because you figure Denver will do that, too. Denver hosts the Bills, then has road games against the Chargers and Bengals, before finishing the season at home against the Raiders. We all know the Patriots' schedule -- at the Chargers, home against the Dolphins, at the Jets, then finishing at home against the Bills. You're going into the last quarter of the season with a lot on the line. Those aren't the types of things you think about when you're on the field, but from an overall perspective, I'm interested to see how this Patriots team responds to this situation.
Mike: December success is one thing that links these teams. Tom Brady is 45-7 in his career in December, while Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is 30-6. Meanwhile, the Patriots came right to San Diego following Sunday's loss to Green Bay. This helped them avoid flying back home, having a short week of preparation, and then getting back on the plane to come to San Diego on Friday. Bill Belichick said he likes the idea of less travel, getting used to the weather, and also adjusting to the time change.
Tedy: This reminds me of how we did the same thing in the 2008 season. That was the year Matt Cassel was the quarterback and we twice had back-to-back weeks playing teams in the Pacific time zone. I remember Bill Belichick specifically saying, 'Don't pack your golf clubs. This is a business trip, the focus should be on the game at hand and the team you have to beat.' We all understood this, and since it's been six years and I'm now retired, I think it's safe to say this: I snuck a round of golf in at Pebble Beach with Mike Vrabel and two other teammates. Hey, he said not to bring clubs, but he never said we couldn't rent them! Those are the types of things you hope to do with teammates that you usually don't, and it can bring you closer. It takes the pressure off a little bit too, and brings team camaraderie to a new high.
Mike: Did you find the practices were as productive?
Tedy: We practiced at San Jose State, and Dick Tomey was the head coach, my old college coach at Arizona. We had some players on the team from California; obviously Tom Brady is from there. So there's a certain aspect where it feels a little like home. If you handle it properly, can keep from Coach that you got a round of golf in and still win a football game, it's not a bad way to go. The only thing I might say this week is that I hope running back Jonas Gray doesn't try any of this! The other thing is that doing this can be really good after a loss. You sort of get in that bunker with your teammates and just focus on football. It brings you closer, you refocus and reset your goals by saying, 'This is where we are now and this is what we need to accomplish.'
Mike: As for the Chargers, they are 8-4 and coming off an upset victory over the Ravens in Baltimore. They were down 30-20 with 6:03 remaining. I like the way they play for coach Mike McCoy, who stresses the "situational football" we're familiar with here in New England.
Tedy: They showed a lot of toughness. That's a solid Ravens team, and to go across the country and win the way they did, it is very impressive. A lot can be said about the pass interference penalty late that set up their winning touchdown, but the Ravens got a PI call early that set them up for a touchdown, too. I don't look at it as if they won because of the penalty. They kept battling, and that's what you'd expect from a team led by quarterback Philip Rivers, because he's a scrapper who won't let his team quit. I've always had respect for him, and defenses do, too, because of his fight. The Chargers have won three in a row after losing three in a row. It's one thing to beat the Raiders, but they stopped a surging Rams team, too, and then the Ravens.
Mike: Rivers is completing 69 percent of his passes, with 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. This is also one of the best third-down offenses in the NFL, converting 47.5 percent of the time.
Tedy: Rivers' pocket courage rivals that of anyone in the league. You can say he's a statue back there because of his lack of mobility -- he spends a lot of time in the shotgun -- but I look at it more as his courage and fire. He's made plenty of plays that are a result of his courage to stand in the pocket and take the hit after the throw. Really, there is good that comes with that, but also some bad. One example of the bad came last week against the Ravens (first quarter, 10:06), when Rivers stood strong in the pocket in the face of pressure and tried to step up. But the pressure came from both the outside and the middle, and he still tries to make a play instead of 'living to fight another day.' The result is an interception to linebacker Daryl Smith. You look at that and think Rivers sometimes has too much pride and it can lead to him taking unnecessary chances. It's a fine line. I'd still take Rivers over someone like the Chiefs' Alex Smith, who seems to be afraid to take chances and still doesn't have a touchdown to a receiver all season and doesn't get the ball down the field. Rivers is going to come at you and battle all game long.
Mike: Part of the reason Rivers is sometimes battling is because the protection is breaking down in front of him. The offense looks like a vulnerability -- they've had a shuffle at center at various points because of injuries -- but the return of running back Ryan Mathews the last three games has seemed to help a bit.
Tedy: When I look at the offensive line index that I've put together to measure the performance of each team's line, the Chargers are just average. For example, when it comes to yards before contact, they are one of the worst units in the league. One of the major things that Belichick will tell his guys to do is get pressure in the middle of the pocket. This is a totally different challenge from last week, because Rivers won't hurt you the way Aaron Rodgers did. So they'll want to attack up the middle and hope to get Rivers on the move. As for Mathews, durability isn't his strong point, but he can do a lot of things -- inside, outside, a receiver out of the backfield. He's good, but I think it's fair to say more was expected of him coming out of Fresno State as a first-round pick. The rotation in the backfield also includes Donald Brown and Branden Oliver. But the Danny Woodhead injury in Week 3 hurt them; he was productive for them.
Mike: Speaking of production, what more can be said about tight end Antonio Gates? He's 34 and still going strong (47 catches, 574 yards, 9 TDs).
Tedy: I can almost hear Belichick's voice in the team meetings this week: "Gates. GET HIM!!" Gates is one of the most savvy players in the NFL. Does he have great speed? No. Does he have great size? No. Is he great after the catch? No. But is he a great player? Absolutely. He is such an instinctive route-runner. He reads defensive coverages well, discretely uses his hands and can push off to get open. When there is a third down or a possession in the red area and your coverage responsibility involves Gates, you know the ball is coming your way.
Mike: Gates obviously must be accounted for in the middle of the field, but I'm also curious what you see on the outside at receiver.
Tedy: Keenan Allen is a good young player, but I don't see him doing a lot of things in this game, figuring that Darrelle Revis will be on him. Allen has shown flashes of brilliance, but the way Revis is playing right now, every team is going to have to fight to get their No. 1 receiver production. Jordy Nelson did it last week against Revis for one big play, but Allen isn't Nelson. One thing you do see is Gates and Allen playing off each other. On Allen's first reception in the Week 8 game against the Broncos (first quarter, 11:32), Gates sets a smart pick to help free him up on third-and-2. Then on another third down (second quarter, 8:39), Gates does it again and Allen converts it. He's their go-to guy (team-high 72 catches), and then you have the 6-foot-5 Malcom Floyd, a big player who I figure Brandon Browner will be covering. Eddie Royal can be hard to handle in the slot.
Mike: That's a nice summation of the Chargers' offense. Let's flip it to the defense and two of the buzzwords we've heard from Patriots coaches this week are "pressure" and "aggressive."
Tedy: I really enjoy watching this defense. They started out really well and have dropped a bit statistically. It's an aggressive 3-4 defense coordinated by John Pagano, which likes to get up the field and disrupt. That's why the Ravens' first two plays last week were a tight-end screen and a bootleg pass concept -- that's what you run against such an aggressive approach. Disguise is a huge part of what they do.
Mike: In that case, tell us more about what you see from safety Eric Weddle. He was a second-round draft pick in 2007 out of Utah and we don't see much of him in New England, but it seems fair to say that he's right up there among the game's best at the position.
Tedy: I love the way Weddle plays games with opposing quarterbacks, coming down late in run support or showing on one side of the line of scrimmage and then blitzing from the opposite side of which he lined up. You see some of what he does rubbing off on fellow safety Jahleel Addae, as he's sort of taught some of the younger defensive backs to work in conjunction with him. So last week, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was referred to as Maverick, and if we go to this week that would make Weddle "The Joker." You see that big beard and there are times when you look at him and don't know if he's laughing based on the games he plays with offensive protection. He has a great motor, and his energy is so evident on the field. He's one of my favorite players in the NFL to watch defensively. You never really know what he's thinking. One example came last week against the Ravens (first quarter, 12:21) when he aligned slightly deeper than the linebacker level, starts on the right, creeps over to the left, and then comes back to the right again. As running back Justin Forsett goes in motion out of the backfield to the defensive right, Weddle moves with the motion to give the look of man coverage, but when the ball is snapped he bursts up field and blitzes off the edge. The result is a quick pressure on quarterback Joe Flacco, who makes a great throw off his back foot to complete the pass. But the disguise was what stood out there defensively. I've seen Weddle disguise everything from run force, to pressure, to coverage concepts. Weddle is the leader of a very instinctive secondary that hard-reads the quarterback in zone coverage. They'll mix things up, but they're very creative with robbers in the middle of the field and safety creativity. They also show good awareness of the sticks on third down, which is a sign they are intelligent and well coached.
Mike: Brandon Flowers has been a nice free-agent signing for them at cornerback. Who else is standing out to you on their defense?
Tedy: One thing about Flowers that showed up in film study is his willingness to force. One of the things that can be underappreciated about certain defensive backs is if they will chop down a lineman to help force the play back inside, which Flowers does well (Week 7, vs. Chiefs, second quarter, 10:42). Meanwhile, up front, defensive tackle Corey Liuget is someone I've seen making disruptive plays all year long. It didn't take long last week against the Ravens to see that (first quarter, 11:40), when he slanted inside off the snap and exploded into the backfield for a tackle for a loss. That was showing up all the way back in Week 1 in the opener against the Cardinals (first quarter, :10), which was a good example of him reading the blocking scheme, taking care of his responsibility and still having the ability and tenacity to make the play (Andre Ellington 1-yard run). The tackle blocked down on him, Liuget didn't go upfield, squeezed, wrong-shouldered the blocker, spilled the ball and slipped under to make the play. Very impressive, just as it was in Week 8 against the Broncos (second quarter, 1:14) when he shaded over the right shoulder of the center, shot up field at the snap as Peyton Manning dumped a short pass over the middle to Ronnie Hillman and Liuget chased him down despite being about 15 yards away from him initially. That's great hustle and effort.
Mike: I know you're always on the lookout for possible All-Bruschi contenders, those unsung-type players who carry the flag. Anyone on the Chargers catching your eye?
Tedy: Veteran outside linebacker Jarret Johnson is one of those dirty-work type of guys. He might match the tight end in the regular defense and I'm interested to see if he matches up with Rob Gronkowski when split out. Linebacker Donald Butler is another solid player, with a lot of production and good instincts.
Mike: We always like to touch on special teams before getting to predictions. Punter Mike Scifres has been around since 2003, while Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal have split punt-return duties.
Tedy: This is where I have to mention Eric Weddle again. Not only is he one of the best safeties in the game, he's even the personal protector on the punt team. Yes, that was him making the tackle in Week 7 against the Chiefs (second quarter, 12:52). Just as it was mentioned he was rubbing off a bit on safety Jahleel Addae, sure enough, you see Addae making tackles on kickoff coverage too (Week 7, vs. Chiefs, 9:36), upending the returner.
Mike: The Patriots' defensive matchups look more favorable to me than last week against the Packers. The educated guess is that Revis is on Keenan Allen, Browner takes Malcom Floyd and the Patriots match Eddie Royal in the slot with either Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard or Malcolm Butler. Only the Seahawks (0.50; 4-8) have a better TD-INT ratio on passes intended for wide receivers than the Patriots (0.73; 8-11). Patriots 34, Chargers 23
Tedy: The one concern I have is the Patriots' defense getting pressure on Rivers. If they can't do it with four, is this a big pressure game for Matt Patricia and the Patriots' defense? Tight ends play will be great on both sides. Tough contest on the road, but the Patriots will get the win. Patriots 23, Chargers 17