Patriots Notes: How Pats Embraced Their ‘Identity’ In Blowout Of Chargers

Plus: The returns of Sony Michel and Dalton Keene

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Some assorted notes and nuggets from the New England Patriots’ 45-0 steamrolling of the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday at SoFi Stadium:

— Starting slow wasn’t an issue for the Patriots in this one.

Entering Week 13 ranked last in the NFL in first-quarter scoring and 30th in first-half scoring, New England opened with a 12-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a 1-yard touchdown plunge by quarterback Cam Newton.

?It was the right way we wanted to start the game,” Newton said after the game. “We had that as a key to victory this week, and I think we hit pretty much most of them.”

The Patriots altered their practice setup this week in an effort to jump-start their late-arriving offense, moving straight from warmups into full-team drills.

A key play on that opening drive came after a short pass to running back James White gained just 3 yards on third-and-5. The Patriots opted to keep their offense on the field, and Newton plowed ahead for the necessary yardage.

Three plays later, he was in the end zone.

?That was big,” Newton said. “It?s up to us as an offense to not blink, and for us to have that confidence from our coaches, it just speaks volumes. And if they believe in us that much, we?ve got to uphold our end of the bargain.”

The Patriots led 28-0 after two quarters, by far their largest halftime lead of the season. In their first 11 games, they never led by more than four points entering the second half.

— After playing just one offensive snap in last week’s win over the Arizona Cardinals, running back Sony Michel saw his first touches since Week 3 on Sunday.

His final stat line wasn’t overly impressive (10 carries, 35 yards), but Michel had some nice moments following his extended layoff. He picked up 10 yards on his first carry and muscled his way for 4 yards on his second, moving the chains on third-and-4.

The third-year back also had a 23-yard catch-and-run from backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham — the longest reception of his NFL career — and lead-blocked for Newton on an early read-option keeper that went for a first down.

In fact, with the Patriots leaning heavily on the ground game, Michel’s 23 receiving yards ranked second on the team behind Gunner Olszewski, who caught a 38-yard touchdown pass.

Damien Harris, who took over as New England’s lead back after Michel landed on injured reserve in early October, said he was happy to see his position mate back on the field.

?It was great,” Harris said. “I?ve always talked about how close this (running back) room has been and how great it is to play with these guys, and it just gets better every single week. Having Sony back out there in the mix, it was great. He?s done a great job. He does his job well, and all of our goal is to just go out there whenever our number?s called to go out there and make a play.

“(We) support our brothers, go out there and play together, because at the end of the day, we?re all in this together, and we?re not going to let anything get in the way of us going out there and trying to be the best position group that we can be and do whatever we can to help make this team be successful.”

Harris led all rushers Sunday with 80 yards on 16 carries, all of which came in the first three quarters. Two of his carries came on direct snaps from a Wildcat formation — a look the Patriots had not shown at any point this season.

Newton also played a vital role in another strong Patriots rushing performance, carrying 14 times for 48 yards and two touchdowns. He wasn’t nearly as productive through the air (12-for-19, 69 yards, one touchdown) but didn’t need to be.

?We?re just playing to our identity,” Harris said. “Everyone knows that?s something that we put a lot of effort and a lot of thought into, running the ball. We want to be a tough, physical team that can run the ball downhill and kind of establish a physical mentality throughout the rest of the game.

“Everybody knows that?s who we are. We know that?s who we are, and we?re going to continue to try to play to it.”

The Patriots also won with defense and special teams, creating several big plays in the kicking game (including two touchdowns) and shutting out a Chargers offense that boasts a superb rookie quarterback in Justin Herbert and an array of potent weapons.

— Rookie tight end Dalton Keene also made his return to lineup, suiting up for just the second time in his young NFL career.

Getting the nod over veteran Jordan Thomas, who sat out as a healthy scratch, Keene played sparingly in the first half but saw his role expand after starter Ryan Izzo left the game with a neck injury during the third quarter.

Keene mostly contributed as a run blocker. He was the only Patriots skill player not to register a reception or carry in the win, finishing with zero targets.

The Patriots made the interesting decision Saturday to activate Keene off injured reserve but leave fellow rookie Devin Asiasi on IR. Asiasi returned to practice a week before Keene and has been eligible to play in New England’s last two games.

Keene began to overtake Asiasi before their respective injuries, however, suiting up in Week 7 while Asiasi sat out as a healthy scratch.

— Stidham replaced Newton for the Patriots’ final three possessions, including a pair of game-ending kneeldowns.

With the game in hand, Stidham attempted just three passes. He completed two of them: the 23-yarder to Michel and the 38-yard touchdown to Olszewski. It was the 2019 fourth-round draft pick’s first game action since Week 7, when he relieved an ineffective Newton in a lopsided loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Backup offensive linemen James Ferentz (at center) and Korey Cunningham (at left guard) also checked in late in Sunday’s win as New England emptied its bench.

New England Patriots wide receiver Gunner Olszewski
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