New England Patriots

Dec 6, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver N'Keal Harry (15) gets a hug from quarterback Cam Newton (1) after catching a 5-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium. Left is wide receiver Jakobi Meyers (16) and wide receiver Damiere Byrd (10) is at right. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Three minutes into the third quarter of their Oct. 10 visit to Los Angeles, the Cleveland Browns held a 14-point lead on their way to a 42-point, 530-yard afternoon and, seemingly at the time, a fourth victory.

Instead, a game featuring 13 touchdowns, including three on runs by Austin Ekeler in the final 7 minutes, 24 seconds, and nine lead changes overall ended with the host Chargers securing their fourth win. By totaling 26 points in the final quarter, L.A. outlasted Cleveland, 47-42.

Guided by first-year head coach Brandon Staley and led by second-year quarterback Justin Herbert, the late Chargers rally resulted in the team’s best five-game start to a season since 2014.

But a week later, having been gashed for 230 yards on the ground by the Browns, the Bolts gave up 187 more rushing yards in Baltimore. Only this time their offense offered few answers, as they succumbed to the Ravens, 34-6.

Their Week 5-6 variation was nothing new for one of the NFL’s most annually enigmatic teams, regardless of its location (from San Diego to L.A.), coach (from Marty Schottenheimer to Norv Turner to Staley) or quarterback (from Drew Brees to Philip Rivers to Herbert).

Usually talented (especially offensively) and always stylish (either in Navy or light blue and gold), the Chargers haven’t had the look of a serious Super Bowl contender in more than a decade. Often, when appearing on the verge of a breakthrough, they’ve slid backward.

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 06: Wide receiver Gunner Olszewski #80 of the New England Patriots is congratulated by quarterback Cam Newton #1 and wide receiver Jakobi Meyers #16 after Olszewski scored a touchdown on a punt return in the second quarter of the game against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on December 06, 2020 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 06: Wide receiver Gunner Olszewski #80 of the New England Patriots is congratulated by quarterback Cam Newton #1 and wide receiver Jakobi Meyers #16 after Olszewski scored a touchdown on a punt return in the second quarter of the game against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on December 06, 2020 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

In 2018, under head coach Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles was loaded on offense at the skills spots and led on defense by rising young stars Joey Bosa and Derwin James. After a Wild Card win at Baltimore and lopsided Divisional loss to the Patriots in Foxborough, the next step forward seemed imminent the following fall.

However, they finished 5-11, before beginning 2020 with a 3-9 record. Last among those losses was a 45-0 embarrassment to the Pats last December.

“One of the worst football games I’ve ever been a part of in my 30 years in the National Football League as a player and a coach,” Lynn said. “That was unacceptable and embarrassing.”

A few years earlier, Lynn had been rightfully heralded for his leadership through the franchise’s move from San Diego and transition without a home-field advantage while playing at a soccer-first stadium. A month later, despite closing out with four straight wins, Lynn was let go.

His successor, the 38-year-old Staley, was hired off the staff of Los Angeles’ other team. Like Lynn early on, he’s been largely lauded.

With a defensive scheme predicated on limiting big plays and trying the patience of opponents; calculated fourth-down attempts (7 conversions in the first 8 tries); and the continued development of Herbert throwing to one of the league’s best receiver groups, Staley had the Bolts atop the AFC West entering Week 6.

But now in Week 8, the Chargers are a half game behind Las Vegas, whom they defeated, 28-14, on Oct. 3. And as they entertain the 3-4 Patriots at SoFi Stadium, they’re faced with two challenges all too familiar.

If the Pats can take advantage of each, they should put themselves in position to continue another irritating constant for their AFC counterparts, as winners of their last six encounters.

  • Ground Game

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 24: Damien Harris #37, Mike Onwenu #71, and J.J. Taylor #42 of the New England Patriots celebrate a touchdown during the second half in the game aat Gillette Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 24: Damien Harris #37, Mike Onwenu #71, and J.J. Taylor #42 of the New England Patriots celebrate a touchdown during the second half in the game aat Gillette Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

    In their 41-28 playoff victory at Gillette Stadium in Jan. 2019, the Patriots hammered a Chargers unit heavy on lighter defensive backs for 155 rushing yards, including 129 yards and three touchdowns by Sony Michel and a fourth scoring run by Rex Burkhead.

    Fast-forward to the present, the Pats have much different personnel and the Bolts play a much different scheme under Staley and coordinator Renaldo Hill.

    Yet, circumstances are similar. Regularly aligning two safeties at depth to form what Staley describes as “a roof” over his defense, L.A. still employs lighter boxes than most. Also, several key front-seven defenders have either been injured or performed disappointingly.

    Overall, the Chargers are dead last by a wide margin in rushing defense, allowing 162.5 yards a game and 5.45 yards per carry. Four of six opponents have totaled 30 or more carries and 180 or more yards.

    Meanwhile, Patriots running back Damien Harris is coming off back-to-back 100-yard rushing games. Last week vs. the Jets, Harris gained 7.6 yards a rush, got up to 20.88 miles per hour (according to NextGen Stats) and combined with J.J. Taylor to tie a team record with four TDs (two apiece).

    Corrections to the Patriots’ offensive line, moving Michael Onwenu to right tackle and inserting Ted Karras at left guard, paid off in their best performance of the season.

    Bottom line, as complex as football can become, the Pats’ main offensive priority should be straightforward. As in North-South, between the tackles.

  • Not So Special

    Dec 6, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Gunner Olszewski (80) returns a punt return for a touchdown Los Angeles Chargers during the first half at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Dec 6, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Gunner Olszewski (80) returns a punt return for a touchdown Los Angeles Chargers during the first half at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    During their past four meetings, no New England advantage was nearly as obvious as the glaring difference in special teams play.

    At San Diego in 2014, the Pats seized control after Brandon Bolden blocked a Mike Scifres’ punt. In their next encounter at Gillette in 2017, Chargers returner Travis Benjamin went backwards and was brought down for a safety. When they met again in Jan. 2019, a muffed punt by Desmond King set the Pats up on a short field before scoring to take a 35-7 halftime lead.

    Then came last year.

    In 2020, the Chargers went through four special teams coordinators, as they missed nine placement kicks and surrendered three blocked punts. The nadir was Week 12, when the Patriots became the seventh team in history to return both a punt and blocked field goal for touchdowns in the same game.

    Gunner Olszewski ran the former back 70 yards (he also had another punt return covering 61 yards). The latter was Devin McCourty’s recovery and 44-yard dash off the block by Cody Davis.

    Granted, this New England team has experienced its own share of trouble, allowing two blocked punts in its first six games. But what we saw last week looked much more familiar.

    Olszewski sparked the first of nine scoring possessions with a 31-yard return of the opening kickoff. Nick Folk delivered his 36th straight made field goal try inside of 50 yards. And Davis made stops all over the field.

    Meanwhile, the Chargers’ special teams unit, now under coordinator Darius Swinton, made two significant changes in the past week.

    Kicker Travis Vizcaino was released after missing five extra-point attempts. His replacement is Dustin Hopkins, who was cut by Washington following two errant PAT tries vs. Atlanta and a missed 42-yard FG attempt vs. Kansas City.

    Los Angeles also added three-time Pro Bowl returner Andre Roberts after his release from Houston. Roberts has returned five kickoffs and punts for scores in his long, journeyman career.

    But in 10 games for six teams against the Pats, he’s been mostly held in check. Earlier this season at Houston, Roberts averaged 23.3 yards on three kickoff returns and returned a punt 11 yards.