Here are five keys to the game heading into the Week 8 match between the Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots:
1. Batter Brady – At 40 years old, Tom Brady is still lightning up the NFL. One of the front runners for MVP at the season's midpoint, Brady leads the league in passing yards (2,208) and completions (174), while ranking second in TDs (17). He's the straw that stirs the NFL's number one ranked offense. The Chargers enter this week knowing it's imperative to make the QB uncomfortable. Just like the New York Giants did in their Super Bowl victories, the Chargers must get pressure on Brady with their front four, led by Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and Chris McCain. The trio is one of only two teams (Jacksonville Jaguars) to have three players with at least five sacks on the year. That's why Brady noted the importance of blocking the Bolts, particularly the duo of Bosa and Ingram:
"Bosa and Ingram get to the quarterback and they do it a variety of different ways. Some of it's blitz, but a lot of it is just beating matchups and those guys are very good one-on-one and it's a big challenge for our offensive line. We've faced a lot of good pass rushers and it seems like we say every week, 'Man, this team's got a good rush, they're coming after us,' and this is another team that really has it. It's just what we're dealing with every week. So hopefully we can use some of the experience we've had these first seven games and really put it to work versus this group, which is really good. They really get after you. I'm not going to be able to stand back there and hold it forever. It's just a real good rush."
2. Commit to the Run – Since New England ranks dead last against the pass, giving up a league-worst 310.3 yards per game, and the Bolts rank 31st in rushing, averaging 79.1 ypg, it may seem obvious to attack the Patriots through the air. However, the Bolts must stay committed to their ground game. The Chargers have not won a game this year when they haven't run the ball at least 25 times. While Melvin Gordon has been the bell-cow back, the team has had success sprinkling in Austin Ekeler and Travis Benjamin as well. Based on Belichick's comments, it sounds as if he expects the Chargers to test them on the ground:
"The running game with Coach (Anthony) Lynn is always a challenge. They do a lot of different things. They probably run as many different running plays as any team that we will face or have faced. They do multiple groups, multiple formations, multiple schemes and all of the complementary plays that go with it; the boots, the reverses, the misdirection plays. They really challenge you in the running game."
3. Contain Gronk – Rob Gronkowski is going to make his fair share of plays. After all, there's a reason he's considered the preeminent tight end in the game today. The key for the Bolts is to contain him as much as possible, not letting the 6-6, 265-pounder completely wreck the game. Through six games, Gronk has caught 29 passes for 452 yards and four touchdowns. He's also gone over 50 yards receiving in every game since the season opener. While the Chargers have had success defending tight ends this year, Bradley noted how this is a different type of challenge:
"Every team that faces New England is presented with that challenge. He's a bigger body. He can block well at the point of attack. When he's flexed out, operates in space, he's so big — it's that type of advantage for him. He uses his body well. Subtle movements to allow him to create some space. He does that very well. Sometimes with tight ends you just see a few types of routes. But he'll run all the routes in the route tree."
4. Beware the Four-Headed Monster – New England's offense is also unique in that they rotate four different running backs throughout the game. Each one also brings something different to the table. Super Bowl hero James White actually leads the team with 38 receptions, while Mike Gillislee has a team-high 87 carries. Dion White is a shifty back who is averaging 5.7 yards per carry, while they got the versatile Rex Burkhead back last week after he missed extensive time due to injury. Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley weighed in on the team's running back rotation:
"They do a good job, and they all have different styles. We have to be really aware of that. We spent a lot of time this week, just looking at the styles of runs. What they're asked to do in the passing game. Sometimes teams, if they go empty, one of the backs will be the guy that's displaced. They'll use them all. It's a challenge that way, trying to understand what they like to do with each back in there. They utilize them all the same, they just have a different skill set."
5. TDs, Not FGs – Rivers and company head into Foxborough knowing they're going to have to put points on the board. Field goals won't cut it against the Pats; they'll need to find the end zone. New England has gone over 30 points three times already this season, and scored 20 in at least six of their seven games. Meanwhile, it seems the Chargers have had a different offensive hero each week. Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, Hunter Henry and Travis Benjamin have each turned in monster performances at clutch times to help get the Bolts back on track. Belichick is well aware of the Bolts' wide variety of playmakers. However, it's also clear he is particularly worried about Keenan Allen:
"He makes so many plays on third down. He leads the league in third-down conversions. He's big, he's fast. He's really good after the catch. He's a hard guy to tackle. He gets a lot of yards on his own. I'd say he's picked up a number of first downs where the catch itself wouldn't have gotten the yardage necessary, but he ended up getting the yardage that they needed. He's a very competitive player, good playing strength and, again, for a bigger guy, good quickness and good ability to make guys (miss). He's a hard guy to tackle, so make guys miss in the open field or run through an arm tackle, things like that. He has a good catch radius. He gets to a lot of balls consistently and dependently. He's a good player."