Chargers and Herbert stumble into New England to find a Patriots team with even more problems

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws to running back Joshua Kelley (25) during the first half Sunday in Inglewood, Calif.

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws to running back Joshua Kelley (25) during the first half Sunday in Inglewood, Calif. AP

Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley fields questions during a post-game press conference after an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley fields questions during a post-game press conference after an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis) Ashley Landis

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick walks on the field during an NFL football practice, Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick walks on the field during an NFL football practice, Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) Steven Senne

New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) passes during an NFL football practice, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4) passes during an NFL football practice, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) Steven Senne

New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) stretches while warming up during an NFL football practice, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) stretches while warming up during an NFL football practice, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) Steven Senne

By JIMMY GOLEN

Associated Press

Published: 12-01-2023 6:32 PM

Modified: 12-01-2023 6:33 PM


FOXBOROUGH — At least the Los Angeles Chargers don’t have to worry about who should play quarterback.

The New England Patriots are still trying to figure out who’ll be the starting signal caller Sunday against Justin Herbert and the Chargers. And they’re hoping it’s the same guy who finishes the game.

In each of the last two games – and four times this season – 2021 first-round draft pick Mac Jones has been pulled in favor of backup Bailey Zappe. Zappe was a bit better in the 10-7 loss to the New York Giants last week, but he also threw loss-clinching interceptions in back-to-back games. The Patriots (2-9) also have Will Grier hanging around, and rookie Malik Cunningham on the practice squad.

“They’re trying to get the best guy out there for their team,” Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. said. “We just need to be ready for whatever they come with.”

New England coach Bill Belichick said he won’t announce a starter in advance, maintaining the secretive approach he rode to great success when Tom Brady was quarterbacking the Patriots to six Super Bowl victories.

It hasn’t worked so well since Brady left.

“I’m not going to make any announcements on our lineup at any position. So, it doesn’t matter what the position is,” Belichick said. “We haven’t won enough games. So, I don’t think anybody has performed well enough.”

With three losing records and not a single postseason victory on his own in the four years since Brady went to Tampa Bay in 2020 – winning a seventh Super Bowl his first season there – Belichick is expected to continue his pursuit of Don Shula’s all-time coaching record elsewhere in 2024.

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One possible location: Los Angeles, where Chargers (4-7) coach Brandon Staley appears to have taken a step backward in his third season. Staley was asked about Belichick “going through a challenging season” this week, but he could have been talking about himself.

“Football is a tough game. The NFL is a really tough league,” Staley said. “You can have tough seasons.”

Staley inherited a seven-win team and won nine and 10 games in his first two years before stalling. The Chargers blew a 27-point lead to Jacksonville in the playoffs last year and have now lost three in a row and five of the last seven games this season.

They’ve also lost 10 in a row to New England, including three straight playoff defeats.

“When you’re going against one of the greatest ever do it, that’s why you do it, to try to compete against the best,” Staley said, who lost his only coaching matchup with Belichick in 2021. “Now, we get another chance at it. Like I said, nothing but full respect for him.”

Herbert has thrown 114 touchdown passes since he was selected No. 6 overall in the 2020 draft and needs one more to surpass Patrick Mahomes for the most in a player’s first four seasons.

But he isn’t without issues.

The 2020 offensive rookie of the year broke the middle finger on his left, non-throwing hand during a 24-17 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders on Oct. 1, and the Chargers are 2-5 since.

“Time is the best thing,” Herbert said. “It’s getting better, and we’re looking better each day.”

GETTING OFFENSE BACK ON TRACK

After scoring touchdowns in the last five drives of Los Angeles’ 41-38 loss to Detroit on Nov. 12, Herbert and the Chargers offense have struggled.

Wide receivers and running backs dropped four passes in a 23-20 loss to Green Bay two weeks ago while the unit committed four turnovers last week in its 20-10 loss to Baltimore.

Austin Ekeler has had a fumble the last two weeks, while Justin Herbert had a fumble and an interception last week.

The offense is ranked 11th in the NFL, but has been inconsistent. Herbert had a knack for late comebacks his first three years in the league, but doesn’t have one yet this season.

STEPPING STONE FOR DEFENSE

Three of the Chargers’ four victories this season have come against backup quarterbacks. That included holding the New York Jets without a touchdown in the Chargers last victory on Nov. 6.

That should mean a good day for a defense that remains ranked last in the league both in total defense and against the pass.

The defense had one of its better efforts in the loss to Baltimore, holding the Ravens without any plays over 40 yards and only three over 20.

Los Angeles is tied for sixth in the league with 36 sacks, including 13 by Khalil Mack, but it hasn’t generated a takeaway in the last three games.

ALLEN CONTINUES TO DOMINATE

Keenan Allen leads the league with 97 catches and is three away from becoming the fifth receiver in league history to reach the century mark in his team’s first 12 games.

Allen had 43 catches in November, which is a league record for the month. He also has at least 10 receptions and 100 yards receiving in three straight games.

He also is seven catches away from 900 career receptions and is on pace to be the fastest to reach that mark.