Chargers vs Patriots: how the statistics compare ahead of clash
The New England Patriots face the Los Angeles Chargers in a fascinating matchup that could have a huge bearing on the AFC playoff race.
SoFi Stadium will play host to Super Bowl LVI in February and, as the NFL season enters its eighth week, both teams that call it home have a chance of competing on the grandest stage in North American sport for the chance to lift the Lombardi Trophy.
Chargers vs Patriots: an interesting Sunday match-up
However, it would be fair to still have doubts around the Chargers after they slumped to a 34-6 defeat to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 6.
The Chargers have had a bye week to stew and try to wash off the stink of a performance they will be all too eager to forget; however, getting back on track may not be straightforward.
Indeed, the Chargers on Sunday host a 3-4 New England Patriots team who have lost three of their games by one score.
The Patriots rank 11th in Stats Perform's efficiency versus expected (EVE) metric, which looks at down, distance, yards from goal, quarter, time remaining, and score difference and uses those six factors to train a model to predict yardage output for any game situation. From there, the projected yards are compared to the actual yards gained or prevented in those situations.
That is eight spots higher than the Chargers, indicating that the Patriots have performed at a more efficient level than Los Angeles this season and should provide a stern test of their Super Bowl credentials.
It is easy to pin this game as a battle between last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert and arguably the best first-year quarterback from this year's crop, Mac Jones.
But to do so ignores the several other factors that may decide this intriguing AFC clash.
Harris to make hay on the ground
In part reflective of the Patriots having played an extra game and having claimed two blowout wins over the New York Jets, who entered the week 31st in EVE, the difference between the Chargers and New England in offensive yards per play is negligible.
The Chargers are 16th in yards per play with 5.71 while the Patriots are 18th with 5.70.
Success for the Patriots on offense has often come as a result of the play of running back Damien Harris.
Harris is averaging 4.6 yards per carry and is coming off back-to-back 100-yard games, rushing for three touchdowns across their overtime defeat to the Dallas Cowboys and a second win over the Jets.
Among running backs with at least 25 carries, Harris is 10th with an average of 2.26 yards after contact per attempt, running behind an offensive line that, per Stats Perform data, is 27th in run block win percentage.
In other words, he is overcoming disappointing blocking and performing very efficiently, and this week he gets to face defense that is 29th in the NFL in run disruption rank.
The Chargers are giving up 5.45 yards per rush, the most in the NFL, and if the Patriots are to keep up with an explosive Los Angeles offense, Harris will likely play a key role.
The Patriots' secondary struggles
Having conceded to being undone by the Ravens' defense and their use of disguise two weeks ago, Herbert faces another vaunted defensive schemer in Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
New England's defense entered Week 8 ranked eighth in yards allowed under expectation; however, their depleted secondary is vulnerable.
The Patriots are 15th in pass yards allowed under expectation and have given up 77 passes of 10 yards or more, the seventh most in the league.
Herbert's passer rating on throws of 21 or more air yards of 114.8 is eighth among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts of such distance.
And, with Mike Williams having already racked up eight receptions of 20 yards or more, the Chargers have a receiver who can consistently deliver the explosive plays that can tilt the contest firmly in the Chargers' favour.
Should he do so against the Patriots, Jones may find it difficult to put up the points stay in the game versus a Chargers defense featuring a name with which Belichick is extremely familiar.
Can Jones make right reads?
"It makes me feel old," Belichick replied when asked about Asante Samuel Jr, the son of the cornerback by the same name who played five seasons with the Patriots, winning the Super Bowl in 2003 and 2004 in a career that saw him twice lead the league in interceptions.
Belichick and the Patriots will surely be wary of Samuel, who has inherited his father's ball-hawking tendencies and already has two interceptions to his name since being taken in the second round of this year's draft by the Chargers.
Samuel is giving up a big play on only 21.1 per cent of his targets, comfortably the right side of the league average of 26 and has allowed a receiver to get open on just 13 of his 56 coverage matchups so far.
His efforts are a big part of why a Chargers defense that has struggled against the run came into the week sixth in pass yards allowed under expectation.
However, Belichick also had great praise for Chargers head coach Brandon Staley and his defensive system, which relies heavily on defenders matching the routes of their receivers but from a zone coverage look.
"Coach Staley does a really good job of keeping you off balance, and, again, we're going to have to make some good post-snap decisions on a lot of things, whether it's movement, rotations, how the coverage plays out," said Belichick.
"They do a good job of matching routes. What looks like zone or what looks like some space closes very quickly in the passing game, and, again, they're very well-coached. They do a good job of, as the pattern develops, they just pounce on it. It really plays like man-to-man, but it's not man-to-man, but it turns out to be man-to-man. Those are challenging for the receivers and the quarterback because the match zones are tough."
That means Jones, who has done an excellent job of reading the field and getting the ball out quickly and is delivering a well-thrown ball on 82.8 per cent of his passes – tied second among quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts entering Week 8 – will have a lot to decipher on Sunday.
It may be billed as Herbert versus Jones, but in reality, this clash is Harris against a struggling Chargers run defense, Herbert vs. Belichick and Jones and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels vs. Staley. Those subplots should make for a fascinating matchup that will be critical in the AFC playoff race.