After a busy week following their win over Miami, the Patriots haven't done a lot of shuffling with their roster since the acquisition of WR Deion Branch via a trade with Seattle.
Branch proved he hasn't lost his touch with Tom Brady as the two hooked up for nine catches in last week's win against Baltimore, including two grabs by Branch on the game-winning drive in overtime.
With RB Danny Woodhead, a former New York Jets' castoff, providing some quality carries in recent weeks, the Patriots have the makings of a solid, ball-control offense that can spread the wealth in the passing game.
Not having the lure of a deep threat such as Randy Moss might coerce Brady into working the ball to all of his receivers, including tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Likewise, Woodhead's ability to find holes will force opposing defenses to respect the running game, making Brady's job much easier.
GAME PLAN: The Patriots must continue to spread the ball offensively and attack San Diego the same way they attacked Baltimore.
The Chargers used to boast one of the league's most dangerous pass rushes, but the decline of LB Shawne Merriman, who is on injured reserve, has taken some of the sting out of the Chargers' defense.
With ample blocking up front, QB Tom Brady should have time to pick his spots and target the open receiver, which could be any weapon at any given time.
The strange thing about the Chargers is they are ranked No. 1 in the league in offense and defense despite their 2-4 record.
The Patriots have been solid against the run and a bit shaky against the pass, so their best plan of attack would be to keep Chargers QB Philip Rivers off the field by chewing up the clock.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots S Brandon Meriweather vs. Chargers TE Antonio Gates. This one could be interesting because Gates is always a threat regardless of what the numbers suggest, and Meriweather might be a bit tentative to deliver the big hit after getting slammed with a $50,000 fine for leveling Todd Heap last week. Regardless, Meriweather has to be as aggressive as ever, unless he wants Gates to take control over the middle. Gates did not practice Wednesday because of a toe injury.
Chargers CB Quentin Jammer vs. Patriots WR Deion Branch. Now that Randy Moss is gone, Branch is Brady's target. This is a good matchup between a tough, physical corner who likes to be aggressive, and a slick, speedy wide receiver who can be as elusive as anyone. Jammer has to win the battle within the first five yards of the line of scrimmage, otherwise Branch will have the edge in the open field. This could be fun to watch.
Chargers RT Jeromey Clary vs. Patriots LB Tully Banta-Cain. Against this New England secondary, Rivers might choose to air it out, which puts pressure on Banta-Cain to get after the quarterback, and equal pressure on Clary to finish his blocks and not allow any uncontested rushes to the backfield.
INJURY IMPACT: The only major injury that could hurt the Patriots is the potential absence of RB Fred Taylor, who has not played in two weeks due to a toe injury. Danny Woodhead has helped fill the void, so the Patriots shouldn't suffer much in the running game.
The Chargers have turned to rookie Cam Thomas to help shore up the run defense.
Thomas, a fifth-round pick, wasn't active the first four games but has played a significant number of snaps on running downs in the past two games.
It seems Thomas has lapped Ogemdi Nwagbuo, or is getting close to it.
It's imperative the Chargers handle the Patriots' mediocre running game so they can get Tom Brady into some obvious passing situations and let their pass rush loose.
If Thomas, who is being asked to do more, can deliver, the Chargers could put Brady into those situations.
GAME PLAN: In the past, the Chargers would have attacked the Patriots' questionable secondary with an array of receivers. But San Diego is missing a significant portion of its receiving corps because of injuries or contract issues. So instead the Chargers will attempt to gain territory on the ground by finally giving the ball to rookie Ryan Mathews numerous times.
Plus, Philip Rivers isn't going to survive the season if the Chargers continue to lean on his passing so much -- he was sacked seven times last week.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Chargers running game, led by a healthy RB Ryan Mathews, vs. Patriots run defense, which is ranked No. 17, allowing 109 yards per game. Mathews doesn't have any more issues with his ankle, so it's time for his coming-out party. A quick look at the Patriots shows their pass defense -- ranked No. 30 -- is their biggest downfall. The Chargers will test that bunch, but only after getting the running game going against a defense that has a rookie at inside linebacker (Brandon Spikes) and a defensive front not playing at the level it displayed in years past.
Chargers special teams, which have been a season-long embarrassment, vs. Patriots special teams, which rank No. 2 in kick-return average. It was more special teams woes for the Chargers last week when K Nate Kaeding slipped on a field-goal attempt and it was blocked; coverage units also allowed a 42-yard punt return. Maybe this week returner Darren Sproles can get untracked, as the Chargers continue to wait for more of a payout for the $7 million they are paying Sproles. The Patriots, though, are No. 6 against punts but only No. 20 against kickoffs. The Chargers' coverage units will be tested, as the Pats' Brandon Tate already has two returns for scores of 97 and 103 yards.
Chargers pass rush, which isn't getting much off the edge of late, vs. Patriots passing game, led by savvy QB Tom Brady. The Chargers have the NFL's top-ranked defense, but they are looking for some pass rush. While Shaun Phillips' team-high six sacks look spiffy, closer examination shows all but two of them came when playing an overmatched Arizona front, and that Phillips has been shut out in the last two games. With Larry English (foot) still out and Shawne Merriman on injured reserve, Antwan Applewhite will get the start opposite Phillips. Applewhite has one sack. Much of the pressure has been coming from the inside and LB Kevin Burnett -- he has five sacks, and they have all come in the last three games. The Patriots have allowed only eight sacks and have done a pretty good job of protecting Brady. The Patriots need to show some kind of running game, which isn't easy to do for them these days, to keep some pressure off Brady. It's imperative the Chargers reach him before he goes through his reads -- especially the one that takes him to CB Antoine Cason, who is coming off his worst game as a starter.
INJURY IMPACT: WR Malcom Floyd (hamstring) didn't practice Wednesday, and he could be down this week. Floyd will try to go later in the week, but he's far from a certainty for Sunday.
--RB Ryan Mathews (ankle) didn't practice Wednesday; this seems to be the course the team is taking with Mathews. He hurt his ankle early in the year, and the team has been easing him into the practice week. He should be a go for Sunday.
--TE Antonio Gates (toe) didn't practice Wednesday. There is a chance he'll try to practice later in the week.
--K Nate Kaeding (groin) didn't practice Wednesday, and he isn't expected to play Sunday.
--ILB Brandon Siler (foot) was a full participant in practice Wednesday, and that's good news for the short-yardage unit and special teams.
--WR Legedu Naanee (hamstring) didn't practice Wednesday. He will try again later in the week, and he might be able to play Sunday.
--WR Buster Davis (ribs) practiced Wednesday, and he will play Sunday.
--OLB Larry English (foot) is out for another three to four weeks.
This report courtesy of The Sports Xchange
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