New England Patriots

New England Patriots

L-R: Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick (USA Today)

The New England Patriots will be back home on Sunday for the first time in over a month, taking on the Los Angeles Chargers. It will be the Patriots’ first home game since Nov. 5 against the Washington Commanders, with a game in Germany, the bye week, and a road game last week in between.

Like the Patriots, the Chargers are in the midst of a relatively disappointing season. After making the playoffs last year, they were expected to trend upwards under fourth-year quarterback Justin Herbert. However they lost two games in a row to open the season, then after briefly stabilizing got hit by injuries and now have lost three in a row. They currently sit at 4-7.


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As we talked about last week, ‘tanking’ shouldn’t come into play here despite both teams’ longshot playoff hopes (the Patriots can actually be officially eliminated from contention on Sunday). There will be jobs on the line this Sunday in Foxborough – some that have already changed, and some that could change soon.

Keeping that all in mind, here’s what to watch for when the game kicks off on Sunday…

  • Bill Belichick vs. Justin Herbert

    INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 31: Justin Herbert #10 of the Los Angeles Chargers throws a pass in the second quarter against the New England Patriots at SoFi Stadium on October 31, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

    INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 31: Justin Herbert #10 of the Los Angeles Chargers throws a pass in the second quarter against the New England Patriots at SoFi Stadium on October 31, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

    This will be the third time Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert faces a Bill Belichick-coached defense. The Patriots played the Chargers each of Herbert’s first two years in the league, before not playing last year.

    In those games, Belichick has owned Herbert. The 2020 sixth-overall pick is 0-2 against New England, completing an even 50 percent of his passes in those games for a total of 432 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions while taking six sacks. That adds up to a collective 52.8 passer rating, which is almost 20 points lower than his next lowest against a single opponent (72.0 in two games against the Baltimore Ravens).

    For those head-to-head matchups, the Patriots have gone more zone-heavy in coverage, mixing up their calls and forcing Herbert to diagnose a lot both pre- and post-snap. Given the Patriots’ injuries in the secondary, a zone-heavy game plan would make a lot of sense this week.

    Additionally, both of those previous matchups took place indoors in LA. Sunday will be Herbert’s first trip to Gillette Stadium, where he will be welcomed by cold, rainy weather.

    The Patriots’ defense has played well the last few weeks, but Herbert is a much tougher test than Gardner Minshew or Tommy DeVito. Still, history tells us it wouldn’t be surprising if they can slow down Herbert and turn this game into a rock fight. The question is, how much will Herbert’s growth the last two years help him against a Belichick defense?

  • A soft landing spot for Bailey Zappe?

    EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - NOVEMBER 26: Bailey Zappe #4 of the New England Patriots calls a play during the third quarter against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on November 26, 2023 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

    EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – NOVEMBER 26: Bailey Zappe #4 of the New England Patriots calls a play during the third quarter against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on November 26, 2023 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

    While the Chargers’ star quarterback tries to crack the Patriots’ defense, the Patriots may be trotting out a first-time starter for the season. Based on reporting this week, it seems like things are trending towards Bailey Zappe getting the ball on Sunday for his first start of the season.

    Zappe has played in four games this year in relief of Mac Jones, but this would be his first start since Week 5 of last season. Zappe started two games for the Patriots last year – winning both – while Jones was out with an ankle injury.

    Last year, Zappe got a soft landing spot when he took over the starting job. His first start following injuries to Jones and Brian Hoyer came against the Detroit Lions’ 28th-ranked defense (season ending ranking), followed by facing the Cleveland Browns’ 20th-ranked defense. The next week he played the second half of a game against the Chicago Bears’ last-ranked defense, although that game didn’t go as well for him (albeit he didn’t prepare as the starter like he did in the other two).

    While the Chargers have a lot of individual talent on the defensive side of the ball, it hasn’t translated. They come into this week ranked 24th in the NFL defensively and have allowed more pass yards than any other NFL team despite a lineup that features playmakers at all three levels. There’s Khalil Mack and standout rookie Tuli Tuipulotu on the defensive line, linebackers Kenneth Murray and Eric Kendricks at the second level, and All-Pro safety Derwin James along with cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. in the secondary.

    If that unit, under the guidance of Brandon Staley (who we’ll get to more in a bit), can play up to its potential, things will be much tougher on Zappe this time around. If they can’t put the pieces though, Zappe could be in a spot to succeed once again.

    Going to Zappe also may not be the only quarterback change the Patriots are making. Look for Malik Cunningham to potentially play a role as a package option – like he did against Las Vegas earlier this year – based on what the practice reps looked like this week.

  • Keeping Bailey Zappe upright

    Nov 26, 2023; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) breaks free of New York Giants linebacker Bobby Okereke (58) in the 3rd quarter at MetLife Stadium. Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 26, 2023; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) breaks free of New York Giants linebacker Bobby Okereke (58) in the 3rd quarter at MetLife Stadium. Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

    Once again, this week should be a run-heavy gameplan for the Patriots. This is a Chargers defense that can be run on, and doing so will keep the clock moving and keep Justin Herbert and the LA offense off the field.

    At the same time, the Chargers can strike quickly. The Patriots will need some semblance of a passing game in order to keep pace if they want to try and win, unlike last week when Tommy DeVito provided much less of a one-strike threat. That means keeping Bailey Zappe protected. Things started going wrong for Mac Jones when he got sped up under constant pressure early in the season, and if the Patriots don’t pass protect better for Zappe the same thing will happen to him.

    While the Chargers’ defense has struggled as a whole, they have been able to get after the quarterback this year. Their 36 team sacks are tied for sixth-most in the league. Leading the way in that effort is Khalil Mack, who is having a resurgent age 32 season with 13 sacks (although six did come in one game against the Las Vegas Raiders earlier this season). Morgan Fox has added 5.5, and rookie  Tuli Tuipulotu has shown some pass rush potential of his own with four sacks. Even without Joey Bosa, who the Chargers lost two weeks ago to injury, the pressure has sustained.

    Even with Trent Brown back in the lineup last week (he didn’t start but played 76 percent of the team’s offensive snaps in his return from an ankle injury) the Patriots allowed pressures on 25 percent of their drop backs. That unit needs to improve this week and give Zappe a chance to show what he can do in his first start.

  • Brandon Staley

    GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN - NOVEMBER 19: Head coach Brandon Staley of the Los Angeles Chargers watches action during a game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on November 19, 2023 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Packers defeated the Chargers 23-20. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

    GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN – NOVEMBER 19: Head coach Brandon Staley of the Los Angeles Chargers watches action during a game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on November 19, 2023 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Packers defeated the Chargers 23-20. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

    Since he took over the Chargers as head coach in 2021, there’s a real argument to be made that no coach in the league has done less with more than Brandon Staley. In his first season, as Justin Herbert broke out into a star quarterback, LA was fifth in the NFL in scoring. The defense didn’t rank as high, but as a defensive head coach he should have been able to build that unit up with offensive playmakers in place.

    Yet the defense hasn’t improved significantly in the last three years, while the offense this year has taken a noticeable dip. Staley’s time has also been marred by poor in-game coaching decisions, highlighted by his game management in the final minute of overtime of the 2021 season finale, when a tie would have sent his team to the playoff. When the Raiders – who also would have gotten in with a tie – seemed content on letting the clock run out, Staley began calling timeouts. Those timeouts opened the door for a Las Vegas game-winning field goal, knocking LA out of the playoffs. In his playoff debut last year, Staley’s Chargers blew a 27-0 halftime lead to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    This has been a pattern under Staley. During his time in LA, the Chargers are 14-22 in one-score games.

    Now likely to miss the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, Staley’s job status is squarely in focus. NFL insider Jordan Schultz reported earlier this week that “barring a miracle” Staley will be fired by the Chargers at some point between now and the end of the season. Many gambling outlets have Staley as the favorite for the next NFL coach to be fired. Will the Patriots be the team that forces owner Dean Spanos to make the move?

  • Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.

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