The Chargers had two weeks to ruminate on their embarrassing loss to the Ravens and come out of their bye week hoping to get back on track in their pursuit of an AFC West title. After a 4-2 start with wins over the Chiefs, Browns, and Raiders, they have proven themselves a true contender. On the other side, the Patriots come off a commanding 54-13 beatdown of the Jets and still have playoff aspirations at 3-4. They have played two very good teams tough (the Bucs and Cowboys), but are still seeking that win that really puts them on the map in the AFC. These teams met last year and the Patriots with Cam Newton buried the Chargers 45-0. Obviously Justin Herbert and the Chargers from last year’s squad have a bitter taste in their mouth and want nothing more than to rectify last year’s loss. Bill Belichick will try to continue his dominance of young quarterbacks and no doubt will throw some new wrinkles at Herbert.
My ratings favor the Chargers to win at home. Based on year-to-date performance relative to competition, the Chargers are ranked 7th and the Patriots are ranked 21st. But there is not as big of a gap as those rankings would indicate. There are many teams in that middle range, and my projections have the Chargers favored by a little more than a field goal.
Baseline: LAC by 4.78.
The LAC Offense
If you’ve been following me for a while you know I love Justin Herbert. A lot has been made of how this team has relied on 3rd and 4th down conversions for success and how that’s not necessarily sustainable. But on the flip side, the more you practice high pressure situations, the better you get at handling them. The Chargers routinely put themselves in tough spots and Herbert is excellent at bailing them out. They don’t run the ball particularly well, and the Patriots have been decent against the run, so this side of the ball will be all about Herbert.
Herbert has only had what I would consider a “bad” game three times in his career: two weeks ago against Baltimore and in two games last year against the Dolphins and the Patriots. The common thread these defenses share is the combination of complex pressure schemes and excellent coverage on the back end. That has been the blueprint for stopping Herbert. He is a smart player for his age, but he is still early in his second season and is learning (sometimes the hard way) how to deal with disguises and stunts. He is one of the best quarterbacks in the league at exploiting breakdowns in coverage. But the other side of the coin is that he can underperform when the opposing defense fails to provide him with break downs to capitalize on.
Now the Patriots have not excelled at getting pressure this season, but they have been good enough in key moments to frustrate even strong quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Dak Prescott. And most importantly, they trick quarterbacks into thinking that there has been a breakdown in coverage when everyone is actually in the right spot. This is why Belichick-coached defenses have excelled against inexperienced quarterbacks. This is how a mediocre Patriots team beat the Chargers 45-0 last season. I certainly do not expect a shut out here, as Herbert has improved. But this is far from an ideal spot for him.
Projection: LAC offense will likely perform below expectation.
The NE Offense
I like the Patriots offense to play well here for two very simple reasons: First, they are at their best when they can run the ball and the Chargers allow the highest average yards per carry in the NFL. Second, they are trending positively on offense with a good explanation. If a team is trending positively with no explanation, I remain skeptical. But here, there are multiple explanations. We have a rookie quarterback who is improving every week, supported by an excellent coach who has a track record of helping young quarterbacks meet their potential. It’s not a surprise that Mac Jones is playing better football in Week 8 than he was in Week 1. And, their offensive line suffered injuries recently but is getting healthy.
Here is a chart showing the Patriots’ offensive performance relative to each defense so far this season:
They played well in Week 1 against Miami when their offensive line was at full strength and they were able to run the ball. Then they struggled against some good run defenses in the Jets, Saints, and Bucs. Against Houston their offensive line was massively depleted (missing four starters), and they started to perform well against Dallas before having their best performance of the season (by far) against the Jets. My pure numbers above treat all games as equal; so when there is reason to believe a team has turned a corner there can be value on that team.
Here, the Patriots offensive line is healthy and the Chargers cannot stop the run. This sets up for an ideal matchup that I think the Patriots will exploit. It’s far more likely that they are an offense on the rise, given the circumstances, than they are a mediocre team that had one randomly good performance. It’s important not to read too much into a win against the Jets; but it would also be a mistake to ignore this team’s trajectory and the evidence they put on film.
Projection: NE offense will exceed expectations.
The Game Flow
This should be a fairly slow game. The Patriots will want to reduce possessions and should be able to by running the ball. They also will want to take away the big play and that will limit the Chargers’ explosiveness. A slow game and fewer possessions favors the underdog, as it should lead to a closer game. But with the game on the line, Herbert is much more likely to win for his team than Mac Jones at this point.
The Patriots successfully bleed the clock and grind out drives but cannot finish with touchdowns consistently. Meanwhile, Herbert makes enough plays to keep his team in it despite having to punt a few times. The teams head into the final stretch tied or within three points, and Herbert pulls out the win in the clutch, 23-20.
SharpClarke Members got my bet earlier this week: NE +5.5 (-110) (2.5 Units). Unlike in pervious weeks, I did not add the underdog money line because I think the Chargers are better built for a win in crunch time and so there is more value on the Patriots with the points. I’m seeing +4 or +4.5 now, and those are good bets as well, although the +4 does lose some real value. That said, I don’t hate the money line. I also like the Under 49.5 or Under 50 but I have decided to roll with the spread bet and leave it at that.
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