The New England Patriots (9-3) are in the driver’s seat to land the AFC’s No.1 seed, but they have some competition in the San Diego Chargers (8-4). The result of their Week 14 contest could be a deciding factor in which team ends the regular season with the top mark in the conference.
New England had sole possession of the best record in the AFC, but a loss to the Green Bay Packers tied them with the Denver Broncos. A head-to-head victory gives them the tiebreaker, but the Patriots don’t have an easy schedule in the final four games, facing three teams that have at least seven wins.
San Diego lost three consecutive games, following a 5-1 start, but they are, once again, playing like a top NFL team. They might have the most difficult remaining schedule of any team, but home games against the Patriots and Broncos will give them a chance to grab the No.1 seed.
Since their 2-2 start, New England has been as good as any team in football. They’re averaging 37.3 points per game in that span, defeating five teams that have winning records. Tom Brady’s 28 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2014 have made him an MVP candidate, and he leads the No.1 scoring offense in the league.
While the Patriots have become known for their ability to put points on the board, an improved defense has been as much of a reason for their success as anything. The unit allowed 74 total points in their first two losses, and it looked like a season-ending injury to linebacker Jerod Mayo could force New England’s defense to take a step back. However, keyed by the addition of Akeem Ayers, the Patriots have one of the most consistent defenses in the NFL.
They might not be holding opponents to single digits every week, but the Patriots have been good at stopping opponents from having offensive outbursts. During their seven-game winning streak, New England didn’t allow any team to score more than 25 points, holding the AFC’s top two scoring teams to just 41 total points. Even in their loss to leading MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, the Patriots only surrendered 26 points, including three points in the second half.
New England ranks 19th in yards allowed (4,331), but a strong red zone defense has kept teams out of the end zone. They rank 11th, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 51.35 percent of red zone trips, and opponents have only scored red zone touchdowns at a 25 percent rate in the last three games.
The Chargers have been at their best when Philip Rivers plays like a top quarterback. He's had a passer rating of at least 113.5 in six games, all of which resulted in San Diego wins. Rivers threw for 383 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s upset victory over the Baltimore Ravens. San Diego’s losses have featured four of Rivers’s five worst passer ratings of the season.
San Diego’s win over Baltimore snapped a three-game losing streak against teams with winning records. The Chargers are 5-1 at home, while all three of the Patriots’ losses have come on the road, but San Diego is still a 3.5-point underdog. The over/under is 51 points on "Sunday Night Football."
New England responded well to each of their first two defeats. After falling in Kansas City by 27 points, they beat the Cincinnati Bengals by nearly the same margin. They followed up a 33-20 loss in the season opener with a 30-7 victory in Minnesota.
The Patriots are 2-7 against the spread in their last nine games as road favorites. The Chargers have covered 10 of 14 games as home underdogs.
Prediction: New England over San Diego, 26-24