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No more Brady and Rivers: Chargers and Patriots much different since last meeting

Chargers coach Anthony Lynn and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick
Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, left, and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick meet after the Chargers’ AFC divisional playoff loss Jan. 13, 2019. The teams play again Sunday, but much has changed over the last 23 months.
(Adam Glanzman / Getty Images)

They entered the day with 12 victories in their previous 14 games, the Chargers having lost only twice in 3 1/2 months.

Then, by halftime, they trailed 35-7.

It was 26 degrees at kickoff that afternoon in Foxborough, Mass. On the Chargers’ sideline, the mood was closer to zero.

“That game was over really fast, dude, I ain’t gonna lie,” defensive tackle Damion Square recalled. “It felt like when we stepped on the field that game was over.”

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New England eventually won 41-28 and, three weeks later, beat the Rams in Super Bowl LIII.

On Sunday at SoFi Stadium, the Chargers and Patriots will meet for the first time since that divisional playoff game in January 2019.

They might not recognize one another.

Austin Ekeler returned from a hamstring injury to play a career-high 60 snaps in the Chargers’ loss to the Bills, but says both legs are not in sync.

Gone are Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Melvin Gordon, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Chris Hogan.

The Chargers are 3-8 and manufacturing motivation. The Patriots are 5-6 and clinging to postseason hopes.

Anthony Lynn could be in his final month as Chargers coach. Bill Belichick is trying to avoid his first losing season since 2000.

But the teams are going to play anyway — playoff relevance and COVID-19 be damned — Square and the other Chargers who remain left to remember a time when they appeared to be on the brink of something big.

The 2018 Chargers won close games and routs. They won seven times on the road and once at a neutral site. They won all types of games the Chargers haven’t won since and at least a couple they had no right winning.

“That was an eventful season,” Square said. “I feel like that year we just kind of ran out of gas. We ended up in New England with the G.O.A.T. We weren’t surprised to be there. But we performed like we’d run our course.”

The Patriots scored touchdowns on their first four possessions, punted and then scored another touchdown. The Chargers finished with 19 rushing yards, barely 20 minutes of possession time and enough frustration to flood Boston Harbor.

Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen catches a 32-yard pass in front of New England Patriots defensive back Jason McCourty.
Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen catches a 32-yard pass in front of New England Patriots defensive back Jason McCourty during the fourth quarter of the Chargers’ blowout loss in the AFC divisional playoffs Jan. 13, 2019.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Afterward, defensive end Melvin Ingram summed up the franchise’s finest season in nearly a decade this way: “We haven’t accomplished [expletive]. We didn’t win the Super Bowl. … We’ve got a long way to go.”

The Chargers, quite clearly, are looking at an even longer, more winding road today.

Starting with the Patriots, they have five games remaining in a season that has slid sideways.

They’ve lost four of their last five and beaten only the NFL’s three worst teams — Cincinnati, Jacksonville and the New York Jets.

They haven’t won an AFC West game since the 2018 regular-season finale, their division losing streak sitting at nine.

Lynn caused a sarcasm tsunami on social media Wednesday when he said his team “probably” is out of the postseason picture.

Several Chargers in recent days have talked about the importance of maintaining focus and playing for one another.

Sam Farmer makes his picks and predictions for Week 13 of the 2020 NFL season.

“I think that’s the strongest motivation, to look to the guy next to you and give him everything you’ve got because we’re all expecting that from each other,” quarterback Justin Herbert said. “At the end of the day, it’s just us in this locker room.”

With Brady now in Tampa Bay, the Chargers figure to face Cam Newton on Sunday. The veteran quarterback has been dealing with an abdominal injury and is listed as questionable.

Newton has had an uneven season — 397 passing yards in Week 2, career-low 23.6 passer rating in Week 12 — for a team that has remained in the playoff hunt for reasons other than quarterback production.

Regardless, the Chargers are in a position where any opponent poses a significant threat. Yes, New England is a game below .500. But this is still New England.

“We definitely got to get us a big fish,” Square said. “We missed one last week with Buffalo. The Patriots are always a big fish in this league. Somehow we gotta get this fish on deck.”


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