LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (3-4) AT NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (5-2)
SERIES HISTORY: 38th regular-season meeting. Patriots lead series, 21-14-2. This is obviously the first time the Patriots will face the L.A. version of the Chargers, but the rivalry dates back to the old AFL days. New England has won three straight and six of seven overall, including postseason victories in the 2006 and 2007 seasons. San Diego had the upper hand in the AFL days, winning 12 of 20 meetings, including a 51-10 domination in the 1963 AFL title game. The Patriots won the last meeting, 23-14 in San Diego in December 2014, while the last matchup in Foxborough also went New England's way, 35-21, in September 2011.
KEYS TO THE GAME: New England's high-powered offense has been held below 20 points in consecutive weeks and below 25 for three straight -- the first time that has happened since the first three games of the 2013 season. Now Tom Brady and Co. face a Chargers defense that's eighth in the NFL in points allowed.
Certainly the biggest test is dealing with a pass rush led by Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Rather than simply relying on its line to protect Brady or for the veteran passer to get rid of the ball quickly against the Chargers' No. 5 pass defense, there is a good chance Josh McDaniels will balance out the offense against San Diego's 31st-ranked run defense.
The Patriots have run the ball better lately using the committee approach -- Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead are all healthy, suitable options. If the Patriots can establish an early running game, it will open up room for the NFL's No. 1 passing attack to get the ball downfield to Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski.
The Patriots' 32nd-ranked pass defense is coming off its best performance of the year, against Matt Ryan and the Falcons. The group, which could see the return of Stephon Gilmore (concussion) after a two-game absence, will look to keep the positive momentum going. L.A. is 20th in the league in points, led by Philip Rivers' pedestrian start to the year. The veteran passer is completing just 60.9 percent of his passes, converting just 36.8 percent of third downs (21st in the league) and has only an 89.9 rating, which is only slightly better than Ryan.
L.A. has not been able to run the ball with any consistency. It has the NFL's 31st-ranked rushing game, led by Melvin Gordon's atrocious 3.4-yard average. Though the Patriots could be without linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive tackle Malcom Brown, the front still has the potential to be competitive against the Chargers' lackluster running game. That will put the onus on Rivers to try to make plays through the air.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Chargers TE Antonio Gates and TE Hunter Henry vs. Patriots S Patrick Chung and S Devin McCourty. Historically, the Patriots have had issues covering tight ends, including issues with New York's Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Tampa's Cameron Brate this season. New England has allowed five touchdowns to tight ends, third-most in the NFL. Los Angeles brings future Hall of Famer Gates (13 catches for 119 yards and a TD) and budding second-year pass catcher Henry, who is tied for third on the team with 21 receptions for 301 yards and two scores. The Patriots' 32nd-ranked pass defense has issues all over the back end, but there is little question that Philip Rivers will test Chung and McCourty with is tight end options early and often.
Patriots offensive line vs. Chargers DE Joey Bosa and OLB Melvin Ingram. New England's pass protection has been better in recent weeks, although Tom Brady was still hit for a strip sack by a runaway rusher in Sunday night's win over the Falcons. L.A. sports one of the more productive pass-rushing duos in the NFL with the second-year star Bosa (7.5 sacks, 10 QB hits, 2 forced fumbles) and Ingram (8.5 sacks, 11 QB hits). The two dangerous rushers move around the front and put pressure on opposing lines in terms of blocking, calls and communication. LT Nate Solder and the rest of the line need to prove they are up to this challenge.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Patriots CB Malcolm Butler. After a slow start to the season that saw the Pro Bowler benched in Week 2 in New Orleans, failing to start for the first time in two-plus seasons, Butler has displayed improved play and increased confidence. That's happened to coincide with $65 million free-agent newcomer CB Stephon Gilmore missing two games with a concussion. Butler, who thought he was leaving as a restricted free agent or possible trade chip last offseason, is likely in his final season in Foxborough. The much-maligned pass defense must prove that Butler and Gilmore can stay on the field together if the unit is to reach its potential.
FAST FACTS: Chargers QB Philip Rivers threw two TD passes last week and has eight (vs. one interception) in his past four games. He has eclipsed 300 yards in three of the past four meetings. He needs 22 completions to pass Warren Moon (3,988) for eighth most in NFL history. ... RB Melvin Gordon has 357 scrimmage yards (119 per game) and four TDs in the past three games. He's the only NFL player since 2016 with 2,000 scrimmage yards, at least 12 rushing TDs (13) and five receiving TDs (6). He is tied for second in the NFL with seven TDs (four receiving, three rushing). ... Last week, WR/PR Travis Benjamin became the first Charger with a TD catch and punt-return TD in the same game since Eric Metcalf in 1997. ... DE Joey Bosa had two sacks last week, the fifth time he has had two since entering the league in 2016. That is tied for the most in the NFL. He is tied for fourth in the NFL with 18 sacks since 2016. Bosa (7.5 sacks) and DE Melvin Ingram (8.5) are the only NFL teammates with seven sacks each. Ingram ranks second in the AFC with 8.5 sacks. ... Patriots QB Tom Brady leads the NFL with 2,208 passing yards, ranks second with a 108.4 passer rating and is tied for second with 15 TD passes. In seven games vs. the Chargers, he has thrown for 2,119 yards (302.7 per game), 14 TDs and five INTs. ... TE Rob Gronkowski ranks second among NFL tight ends with 452 yards and is tied for second with four TD catches. He has four TD catches in three career meetings. ... WR Chris Hogan has five TD catches in his past five home games. He is tied for fourth in the NFL with five TD catches.
PREDICTION: The Chargers have turned it around after an 0-4 start, but the three-game winning streak probably can't withstand Brady and Co.
OUR PICK: Patriots, 30-24.