It’s impossible for a game to be any more “on brand” than the Patriots' 45-0 vivisection of the Chargers was on Sunday.
Not the result. Nobody’s out there picking 45-point wins. Hell, I picked L.A. because I figured they just couldn’t keep on keeping on with their BS. But keep up with their BS they did.
Uber-talented, under-disciplined. A team that leaves all stones unturned when trying to unearth a way to win. They showed up with mismatched socks, their shirt half untucked and their zippers down.
They trotted out the same sloppiness they’ve exhibited all season.
Worst in the league coming in at covering punts (12.2 yards per return)? They allow returns of 70, 61 and 14 yards to Gunner Olszewski. The 70-yarder was a touchdown. Gunner – who is neither the second coming of Devin Hester nor Julian Edelman – barely got touched on the touchdown.
For the hell of it, they missed a field goal and gave up a touchdown on a blocked field goal just before halftime, which put them behind 28-0 and ensured the second half was academic.
Notable for porous run defense (they’d allowed at least 5 YPC in four of their past six games)? The Patriots ran 27 times for 127 yards and two Cam Newton touchdowns in the first 30 minutes.
Regarded as a team which would take some ill-timed penalties, the Chargers got one in the first half for illegal use of hands on a third-and-19 play that extended a Patriots drive and made it 21-0. In the second half, they had 12 men on the field for a punt return. That 5-yard penalty gave the Patriots a first down.
The Patriots? They did what they do. This is what I wrote in the game preview.
What we have here is a matchup between polar opposites. In this corner, the wildly-talented Chargers, a 3-8 team that’s able to pluck defeat from the jaws of victory with regularity with head-scratching decisions, situational weirdness, special teams sluggishness and a penchant for penalties. Annnd in this corner, the not-tremendously talented 5-6 Patriots who somehow find a way every week to make up for what they lack in talent by waiting on their opponent’s missteps and capitalizing when they come. Trick play here and there. Special teams savvy. Stay away from the penalties. Confuse the quarterback. Voila. Win.
And still, I picked the Chargers to win. Why? Probably because I overestimate teams’ abilities to fix obvious problems probably because I’ve spent so long watching a team that almost always fixes or covers up its shortcomings and almost never beats itself.
Case in point? Olszewski. He’s been returning punts since the start of 2019. He’s made some iffy decisions in that role and they came to a head against Houston when he returned a kickoff from the back line of the end zone and tried to return a punt with 10 seconds left when the only thing he should have done was call for a fair catch.
Last week, against Arizona he was relieved of kickoff duties but ripped off a punt return touchdown that was reduced to a 58-yarder because of a penalty. This week, he went off again.
Another case in point? Newton. Since his three-pick day and benching against the 49ers six games ago, he’s thrown two picks since – both last week against Arizona. He is not a surgical passer. On that we can all agree. But he’s labored to tidy that up while embracing the part of his game -- running -- that has been an unquestioned offensive equalizer for the Patriots.
Final bit of evidence? The Patriots have been flogging themselves over their slow offensive starts.
Asked about it last week, Belichick said, “We’ve been working on it. We’ve been working on it literally every day. So, we’ll keep working on it and see if we can get get better results here and move ahead.”
In preparing for the Chargers, the Patriots up-tempo’d their work at the start of practice. They opened the game Sunday with a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a Newton touchdown leap.
What does it mean going forward now that they’re 6-6 and still lurking around the periphery of the playoffs? That this team -- like so many of its predecessors -- has extreme buy-in. They fix their issues. They hatch good plans. If the plans get carried out, they can beat anyone and it takes a superlative and very clean performance (see Deshaun Watson and the Texans) to get them to submit.
When the mistakes come -- as they did against the Cardinals and Jets -- they will capitalize. They almost tracked down Denver the same way. If you’re the Rams, Bills and Dolphins with all the talent on your roster, you see the upcoming games with the Patriots and sweat a little.
The Patriots -- for all their limitations -- probably won’t be complicit in their own undoing. They will wait for your mistake and when you make one on offense, defense or in the kicking game, they’ll pounce and then you’re left with laments and “woulda, coulda, shouldas.”
The Patriots are officially a problem. Very on-brand.
THAT’S WHY CAM’S THE ONE
Newton threw for 69 yards on Sunday before being lifted at the start of the fourth quarter. It was a new career-low for him surpassing (undercutting?) his 84-yard performance last week. He went 12 for 19 and took one sack. His ball placement issues were there as they usually are. But that is what it is. He’s not out there for a dissection. He’s out there to generate first downs and points and the first drive was a perfect illustration of that.
The Patriots opened with a short, simple pass to running back Damien Harris that gained 15. Harris took a direct snap and ran for seven. Harris then ran for eight before Jakobi Meyers dropped a well-placed throw from Newton. Harris then picked up 11 for another first down and Newton carried for 14 to get it to the Chargers 20.
Harris picked up five on the next two carries then James White caught a pass in the left flat and was dropped after a gain of three. On fourth-and-2, Newton plowed forward and picked up the first down. A direct snap to Harris gained five. Newton then ran twice to get them in the end zone.
It was an efficient, low-risk, methodical, bullying drive that set the tone for the day. Is Jarrett Stidham going to do that? No. Could Stidham have dinked and dunked down the field and hit a chunk play here and there through the air? Maybe. But you want to bet on that? Didn’t think so. Newton is safe and productive. You live with the throwing limitations because the running element tips the scales so significantly in his favor it’s barely worth discussing anyone else taking snaps when the game is in the balance.
It was nice that Stidham got reps and was able to hook up with Olszewski for the Patriots sixth touchdown of the game. He also hit N’Keal Harry for a 10-yard gain. That, along with Harry’s short touchdown catch, was a plus for the second-year wideout, who’s been desperately in need of some positive work. But it was the epitome of garbage time and there’s not a lot to be learned from it other than the fact Stidham can throw a nice ball and also complete an appearance without an interception.
SONY BACK IN ACTION
The Patriots got Sony Michel his most extended work in months -- 10 carries for 35 yards and a reception for another 23. While Harris is clearly the lead back at this point, having Michel in the mix -- especially with Rex Burkhead down -- is important to the running game as a whole. One of Michel’s best plays of the day was actually a block delivered on an RPO with Newton. After carrying the decision past the end of the line, Newton kept it and Michel peeled off and demolished the edge-setting defensive back allowing Newton the chance to turn the corner and pick up a first down.
ANOTHER CONFOUNDED QB
In their past four games, the Patriots defense has seen Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Kyler Murray and Justin Herbert. Herbert, the only rookie of the group, got totally undressed by the Patriots. A lot of it had to do with the pressure the Patriots brought rushing just three and four defenders in the first half. The rest of it had to do with outstanding coverage downfield that had Herbert deliberating where to go with the ball. In the end, it was an undressing similar to the ones Murray and Jackson were handed.
Why wasn’t Watson flummoxed by a similar scheme to the one the Patriots used with Herbert? Watson stepped away from trouble. The rush wasn’t as cutthroat. He was unbelievably dialed in and knew what he was looking at. In short, he’s better than Herbert.
But the best argument for the Patriots “path” to a playoff spot is probably found in their recent treatment of young quarterbacks and the next three they will see. Jared Goff is up on Thursday night. He’s seen the Patriots twice -- once in the Super Bowl -- and he didn’t fare well. After that, it’s rookie Tua Tagovailoa then Josh Allen.
If the Patriots can get the work they did from their front -- Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler in particular, fast-ascending pass-rusher Josh Uche right alongside -- they will be in a great spot to sneak in the backdoor of the playoff field.
A COUPLE OF RANDOS
Just before halftime, CBS put up a graphic saying that the Patriots had won 94 games in a row when they led by 14 points or more at halftime. Think about that. Bill Belichick has had more than five seasons worth of games in which his team led at halftime by at least two touchdowns. And they won them all.
Belichick spent a few extra seconds on the field after the game talking with Chargers tight end Hunter Henry. Henry had just one catch for five yards on Sunday. This is what Belichick had to say about him last week, “Henry continues to be a complete and very, very good football player for them. Henry’s really been a great player. Watched him pretty much his whole career. ... Went to Arkansas. Had a great career there.
“Went to the Chargers and with [Ladarius] Green out, he’s really played the Y-role this year. Showed a good ability to block, catch. He runs a variety of routes. He’s come back off the injury and has been a very, very productive player for them along with all the other skill players. He’s done a good job for them in the running game as well as the passing game.”
Henry is a free agent in March.