The New England Patriots have shown more than once in Bill Belichick’s tenure that they don’t need a bevy of high-profile players to win, and they already appear to have moved on after trading their top offensive weapon.
The San Diego Chargers might be running out of time to again overcome their habitual early-season struggles.
The mistake-prone Chargers have dug themselves a deeper hole than usual despite a relatively soft schedule, and they begin a far more difficult stretch Sunday when they host a Patriots team seeking its fourth straight win.
San Diego got off to its fourth consecutive 2-3 start after falling 35-27 to Oakland on Oct. 10, but each of the last three years it won its sixth game to spark turnarounds toward winning the AFC West.
This time, however, the Chargers (2-4) fell behind 17-0 before halftime and lost 20-17 at St. Louis last Sunday. Their four losses have come to teams that went a combined 15-49 in 2009, and in each defeat, they’ve been unable to overcome an early deficit on the road.
“I’ve been doing this long enough to know there are no guarantees for anybody, and that’s why every week is a new week and you’ve got to prepare that way,” coach Norv Turner said. “And anyone who’s naive enough … to think that there’s a game that’s going to be easy in this league, they don’t know enough about the National Football League.
“I’m accountable and you know how I feel about it. It’s all on me. I’m going to do everything I can to get it straightened out.”
San Diego is tied for last place, but trails division-leading Kansas City by just 1 1/2 games. The schedule is about to get considerably tougher, though, with games against Tennessee, Houston, Denver and Indianapolis following the visit from the Patriots (4-1).
“The AFC West is still right there. We’re still in the thick of it,” said quarterback Philip Rivers(notes), who leads the league in passing yards (2,008) and is tied for second in touchdowns (12) and passer rating (100.7). “We’ve just got to go win a game on Sunday.”
That won’t be easy against New England, which didn’t seem to miss Randy Moss(notes) after shipping the mercurial receiver to Minnesota during its bye week. The Patriots reacquired Deion Branch(notes), who has never had a 1,000-yard season but topped 130 yards in each of his Super Bowl wins with New England - including an MVP performance in Super Bowl XXXIX.
The deal paid dividends immediately. While Moss had nine catches in four games, Branch had that many last Sunday against Baltimore, finishing with a team-high 98 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots’ 23-20 overtime victory.
New England is in the midst of a brutal six-week stretch that includes games against Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, but it may catch a break Sunday if Rivers’ top two targets can’t play. Leading receiver Malcom Floyd(notes) is almost certainly out due to a hamstring injury he suffered at St. Louis, while star tight end Antonio Gates(notes) is questionable after hurting his ankle against the Rams.
That’s good news for a Patriots pass defense that’s 29th in the league, allowing 273.4 yards per game.
It’ll be particularly interesting to see how one member of New England’s secondary plays. Safety Brandon Meriweather(notes) was fined $50,000 for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Baltimore’s Todd Heap(notes), a play for which he later apologized.
“To be honest, I just want all this to go away,” Meriweather said. “I want to focus, with the rest of my team, on the Chargers and really not let this come up again.”
While San Diego’s losses have all come on the road after early deficits, it jumped on Jacksonville and Arizona early in winning its two home games by a combined 56 points.
With the lead, the Chargers were able to focus on running the ball. San Diego has averaged 165.5 rushing yards at home, as opposed to 92.0 yards on the road.
The Patriots, meanwhile, may have found an unlikely answer at running back in Danny Woodhead(notes). A waiver pickup from the Jets in mid-September, the undrafted Division II product chipped in 115 all-purpose yards and picked up six first downs against Baltimore.
New England has won the series’ last three meetings in which Brady’s been healthy - two in the playoffs - despite the two-time Super Bowl MVP throwing seven interceptions in those games.
Rivers threw five picks and posted a 57.6 passer rating in those losses.