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What we learned: Patriots roll over Chargers, 23-14 12.07.14 at 11:39 pm ET
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Rob Gronkowski caught his 10th touchdown of the season in the Patriots' win. (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

Rob Gronkowski caught his 10th touchdown of the season in the Patriots’ win. (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

The Patriots completed their six-game gauntlet in style, knocking off the Chargers in San Diego Sunday night, 23-14. Tom Brady finished 28-for-44 for 317 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Meanwhile, Julian Edelman had eight catches for 141 yards and a touchdown, and LeGarrette Blount had 20 carries for 66 yards.

On the other side of the ball, Philip Rivers helped spark the Chargers to a 14-3 lead, but couldn’t put the ball in the end zone after that. The San Diego quarterback ended the game 20-for-33 for 189 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Malcom Floyd had three catches for 54 yards and a touchdown and Ryan Mathews had 11 carries for 44 yards.

The Patriots spotted the Chargers an 11-point lead — thanks in large part to a pair of early turnovers from New England. But while the Patriots offense struggled at times (including four straight 3-and-outs in the third quarter), the defense was spectacular. The Chargers were unable to do anything at all in the second half, as San Diego was held scoreless over the third and fourth quarter.

New England improved to 10-3, and holds on to the top spot in the AFC playoff race. The Patriots will face the Dolphins next week in Foxboro. Meanwhile, San Diego saw a three-game winning streak snapped, and dropped to 8-5 with the defeat. The Chargers will host the Broncos next Sunday in Southern California.

Here’s what we learned about the Patriots Sunday night:

They won despite a miserable performance by the offense for the better part of the second and third quarters.

The Patriots, who came into the game with a 100-point advantage in second-quarter scoring over the course of the season (their 156-56 edge was the greatest point differential in the league for any team in any quarter this season), were outscored 14-10 in the second against the Chargers. It was a quarter that ended with a really bad throw from Brady for Gronkowski that was picked in the red zone. It was part of a miserable sequence for Brady and the Patriots, who went 3-and-out on their first four drives of the third quarter and picked up their first first down of the third in the last play from scrimmage.

Their special teams are among the best in the game.

Their second-quarter touchdown came as a result of a terrific blocked punt by Brandon Bolden, who busted through and knocked down a Mike Scifres punt with just over five minutes left in the second quarter. (Scifres was knocked out of the game.) It was the first blocked punt of the season for the Patriots, and first since Pat Chung did it in 2010. The Patriots cashed in four plays later when Brady found Rob Gronkowski in a 14-yard pass play to give New England its first touchdown of the night. (With the touchdown, Gronkowski became the first tight end to have four seasons of 10-plus touchdowns.) Gostkowski connected on three field goals for the Patriots on the night (two from 22 and another from 38).

They’re still not confident in anyone other than LeGarrette Blount running the football.

The Patriots were able to run the ball really consistently in the early going, as Blount accounted for 50 yards on New England’s first drive as the Patriots powered the ball all the way down to the San Diego 1-yard line. But that was pretty much it for Blount, who was a nonfactor for most of the rest of the evening. (Part of that could be scheme, part of it could be situational. Either way, another look at the film is warranted for what was some curious play-calling at some key moments.) No other back was much of a factor on the night.

Julian Edelman is feeling OK.

The wide receiver, who has been banged up the last couple of weeks (he left the Packers game early) was a difference-maker much on the evening for the Patriots. He was able to consistently move the chains and pick up key yardage throughout the night, and had the 69-yard touchdown catch that effectively ended things against the Chargers. Edelman, who appeared to disappear into the background for a few games over the course of the last six games, (he had one catch against the Bears and five against the Colts) is now well-positioned to be a go-to guy down the stretch and into the playoffs for the Patriots.

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Live blog: Tom Brady’s Patriots take on Philip Rivers’ Chargers in San Diego at 5:50 pm ET
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The Patriots are looking to bounce back after last week’s loss in Green Bay, while the Chargers are seeking their fourth straight win — a game which will go a long way in the shaping of the AFC playoff picture. Follow the game through tweets before, during and after.

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10 things you have to know about Broncos-Patriots 11.01.14 at 10:42 am ET
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A successful outing for Nate Solder and the rest of New England's offensive line against Denver's defensive front is absolutely vital for the Patriots on Sunday. (Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)

A successful outing for Nate Solder and the rest of New England’s offensive line against Denver’s defensive front is absolutely vital for the Patriots on Sunday. (Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)

Here’s everything you need to know about Sunday’s contest between the Patriots and Broncos:

Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon (other than the potential Darrelle Revis-Demaryius Thomas showdown, which we detailed here earlier in the week):

1. Broncos front seven against the Patriots offensive line: This is what’s going to decide the afternoon. Can the New England front, which has played well over the last few games, hold off Denver’s defensive front, which includes edge rushers Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and massive defensive tackle Terrance Knighton? The grouping, which welcomed center Bryan Stork and guard Dan Connolly back last week, appears to be hitting something close to a stride. (Last Sunday marked the first game in over a year where quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t sacked.) But at the same time, the line will face its sternest test of the year against a Broncos defense that is equally talented at getting after the passer (sixth in the league with 23 sacks), as well as stopping the run (best in the NFL with an average of 72.4 rushing yards per game allowed). While the personnel has been different, one of the things the Patriots have done in the past against a Jack Del Rio defense that has — usually — brought them success was to open five-wide and spread things out, and put an emphasis on getting the ball out as fast as possible. That would negate the pass rush, and put some pressure on the Denver linebackers in coverage in some shorter and intermediate routes against the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman. (A winnable matchup for New England against the Broncos, as Denver is without its’ best coverage linebacker in Danny Travathan.)

2. Safety T.J. Ward against tight end Rob Gronkowski: This won’t be an exclusive matchup — the Broncos will likely throw multiple bodies, including defensive backs and linebackers at Gronkowski in hopes of limiting his overall impact. But, this is the one-on-one showdown that could produce some drama for a few reasons, not the least of which it was Ward who went low on Gronk last year, delivering the blow that knocked out the tight end for the season. Gronkowski was very matter-of-fact when he said Ward hadn’t reached out to him since the hit, while Ward was similarly plainspoken about what went down, telling the Boston Globe, “€œI feel bad he got hurt, you know, but that’€™s about it.” In short, it’s going to take a village to try and bring down Gronkowski, who has put together an impressive four-game stretch where he’s had 27 catches for 411 yards and four touchdowns. That includes an average of almost 10 targets a game, a sizable bump after averaging five targets per game in Weeks 2 through 4. While there will be other options who will mix in and out of the passing game over the course of the afternoon, the fortunes of the Patriots’ passing game will rise and fall on the shoulders of Gronkowski. (For what it’s worth, the Broncos have some experience this year when it comes to slowing elite tight ends. San Diego’s Antonio Gates had five catches for 54 yards, two touchdowns, but San Francisco’s Vernon Davis was held to two catches for 21 yards and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce had four catches for 81 yards. All three weren’t exactly silenced when they faced the Broncos, but all ended up with stat lines well below their season average.)

3. Tight end Julius Thomas against linebacker Jamie Collins and cornerback Brandon Browner: Like the Broncos attempts to try and slow down Gronkowski, it will take multiple defenders to slow Thomas, who is the most challenging offensive option for New England going into this one. If you’€™re the Patriots, you feel good about your chances when it comes to a Darrelle Revis-Demaryius Thomas matchup, as well as Kyle Arrington-Wes Welker in the slot. Depending on the health of Alfonzo Dennard’s shoulder, a Dennard-Emmanuel Sanders matchup is dicey, but things really get tough when you’re talking about Thomas. Collins would usually draw the matchup, but he failed miserably in last year’s AFC title game when he went head-to-head with Thomas, and has struggled for portions of the 2014 season as well. That brings us to Browner, a bigger and more physical corner who might have the size needed to match up with Thomas, but could also be deployed in other areas. (Newcomer Jonathan Casillas could also see some time working against Thomas as well.) Regardless of who is lined up opposite him, Thomas (30 catches, 327 yards and nine TDs) is an imposing threat on a number of levels, including in the red zone, where the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder has become Peyton Manning‘s preferred weapon of choice.

4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’ fans need to know: We included him in our list of relatively unheralded guys who could have an impact on this game, but in truth, Denver cornerback Chris Harris, Jr. deserves more love on the national scale than he’s been getting this year. Known primarily as the cornerback opposite Aqib Talib, he’s evolved into an impressive defender in his own right. The 5-foot-10, 188-pounder, who had his left ACL fixed in February, has 11 pass breakups and two interceptions, and he has teamed with Talib to form one of the more impressive cornerback duos in the league over the first half of the season. It’s debatable who he could end up facing (Brandon LaFell?), but will likely be called upon to play a major role in trying to slow down the New England passing game on Sunday.

5. By the numbers: (tie) — (via Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders) Manning on 10 days rest: 10-1 record, 68.8 completion percentage, 8.23 YPA, 21 TD, 4 INT, 108.8 passer rating
— (via Brady vs. defenses led by Denver DC Jack Del Rio: 7-1 record, 71.4 completion percentage, 18 TDs, 0 INTs. Teams average 28 points per game.
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Report: Patriots acquire linebacker Akeem Ayers from Titans 10.21.14 at 4:39 pm ET
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According to Titans beat writer Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, the Patriots have traded for Titans linebacker Akeem Ayers, pending a physical. CBS’ Jason La Canfora adds the Patriots will also receive a seventh-round pick and give a sixth-rounder back to Tennessee.

Ayers was a 2011 second-round pick and started in 43 games during his first three seasons in the league, including totaling 66 tackles in 2012. He reportedly had offseason knee surgery on both knees and has only appeared in two games so far this season.

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Patriots offensive line performs well, protects Tom Brady in win over Bengals 10.06.14 at 11:37 am ET
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FOXBORO — A lot of the focus on the Patriots offense‘s struggles this season has been centered around the play of the offensive line and their inability to protect quarterback Tom Brady, as going into Sunday he was sacked 10 times.

In the 43-17 win over the Bengals they answered their critics and played their best game of the season, leading the way for the Patriots running backs who ran for 220 yards and also protected Brady, as he was sacked just once against a Bengals defense that came into the game totaling seven sacks in three games.

After starting his first career game last week against Kansas City, rookie Cameron Fleming missed Sunday’s game with a finger injury, so once again the Patriots needed to find a different combination up front.

Here is how the offensive line combinations broke down (from left-to-right, doesn’t include kneel down at the end):

Drive 1: Nate Solder-Dan Connolly-Bryan Stork-Ryan Wendell-Sebastian Vollmer (Touchdown)

Drive 2: Solder-Connolly-Stork-Wendell-Vollmer (Touchdown)

Drive 3: Solder-Connolly-Stork-Wendell-Vollmer (Punt)

Drive 4: Solder-Connolly-Stork-Wendell-Vollmer (Punt)

Drive 5: Solder-Connolly-Stork-Wendell-Marcus Cannon (Field goal)

Drive 6: Solder-Connolly-Stork-Wendell-Vollmer (Field goal)

Drive 7: Solder-Connolly-Stork-Wendell-Vollmer (Punt)

Drive 8: Solder-Connolly-Stork-Wendell-Vollmer (Touchdown)

Drive 9: Solder-Connolly-Stork-Wendell-Vollmer (Field goal)

Drive 10: Cannon-Connolly-Stork-Wendell-Vollmer (Field goal)

Drive 11: Solder-Connolly-Stork-Wendell-Vollmer (Field goal)

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Patriots offensive line continues to make changes, struggling to find right combination 09.30.14 at 12:29 am ET
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Tamba Hali was able to get to Tom Brady for a strip sack in the second half of Monday's 41-17 loss to the Chiefs. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Tamba Hali was able to get to Tom Brady for a strip sack in the second half of Monday’s 41-14 loss to the Chiefs. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The Patriots made a few changes to the struggling offensive line prior to Monday’s game against the Chiefs by starting two rookies — Bryan Stork at center and Cameron Fleming at right guard (his first time ever playing the position), as well as moving Dan Connolly to left guard.

In addition, the team deactivated Jordan Devey, who had started the first three games of the season. Even with the changes, it did not stick as the team continued to rotate players in and out almost every series throughout the game trying to find a combination that works.

Here is our breakdown of the line (left tackle to right tackle) for each of their 11 drives:

  • Drive 1: Nate Solder, Dan Connolly, Bryan Stork, Cameron Fleming, Sebastian Vollmer (Punt)
  • Drive 2: Solder, Connolly, Stork, Fleming, Vollmer (Punt)
  • Drive 3: Solder, Connolly, Stork, Fleming, Vollmer (Punt)
  • Drive 4: Solder, Connolly, Stork, Fleming, Marcus Cannon (Punt)
  • Drive 5: Solder, Connolly, Stork, Fleming, Vollmer (Punt)
  • Drive 6: Solder, Connolly, Stork, Fleming, Vollmer (Fumble)
  • Drive 7: Solder, Connolly, Stork, Fleming, Vollmer (Interception)
  • Drive 8: Cannon, Connolly, Stork, Fleming, Vollmer (Touchdown)
  • Drive 9: Solder, Connolly, Stork, Ryan Wendell, Vollmer (Interception)
  • Drive 10: Solder: Wendell, Stork, Fleming, Cannon (Touchdown)
  • Drive 11: Cannon, Wendell, Stork, Fleming, Vollmer (Punt)

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Cameron Fleming draws praise from Bill Belichick after missing offseason workouts 09.25.14 at 1:17 pm ET
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Cameron Fleming

Cameron Fleming

FOXBORO — Rookie offensive linemen Cameron Fleming got a late start to the Patriots’€™ offseason program because he was finishing up classes at Stanford. But, the 22-year-old aeronautics and astronautics double-major hasn’€™t let that affect him as he’€™s played in all three games this season — although not in his natural position of tackle.

With tight end Rob Gronkowski working his way back to full strength, Fleming has been used as an extra tight end — playing 44 snaps over the three games, according to Pro Football Focus.

“Definitely a learning experience, I had to catch up a little bit,” Fleming said. “€œI’€™ve learned a lot. It’€™s easy just to focus on just football now because that’€™s all I have so it makes it a little easier to dig in and work.”€

Coach Bill Belichick was impressed with how prepared Fleming came to the team after missing most of the offseason workouts and now his work paying dividends.

“€œI think Cam [Fleming] has done a real good job for us,”€ Belichick said last week. “€œOne of the challenges for him and for us was him not really being here for much of the spring. Just being late in spring because of his commitments to school. We really didn’€™t have a great feel for him until training camp started.

“And he came here in really good condition. He ran well. He dropped some weight, he leaned up. He worked really hard between the beginning of June and the end of July. He was definitely ready to go, had a good camp, performed very well. And caught up to all the things we were doing in a short amount of time. The more time we spent around him, the more impressed we were.”

Fleming has never played tight end at any point of his career, but said it isn’€™t much different as he is still blocking, just from a position further out. The fourth-round pick noted the veteran members of the offensive line have helped him out considerably so far this season.

“They are like an encyclopedia of knowledge,”€ he said. “€œAnything I need to know — like how to take a set — they are right there to help me out, give me advice and tell me how they did it.”

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