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Socci's Notebook: Sharing A Few Thoughts From Sunny San Diego

SAN DIEGO (CBS) -- Frankly, it could be easy to forget about football on a day like this. Even if the pristine sky over the North County Coast near San Diego reminds one of the powder-blue uniforms the Chargers are expected to wear Sunday night against the Patriots.

Surfers are riding the waves that roll into a shoreline populated by young beach volleyball players, competing on side-by-side courts in what seem to be Southern California's answer to weekend youth hockey games back home in New England.

After a cool, rainy start to the week out here and a few days talking the game with Patriot players and their head coach Bill Belichick on a nearby college campus, the sun is up -- and so is the mercury -- on a free day of sorts.

With no practice or press conference to attend, it's OK to make a walk or run along the coast a little longer and a lot more leisurely. Kickoff of the Pats and Chargers is still a day and a half away. There's plenty of time to wander.

At the same time, there are plenty of things to wonder about, too. Specifically, regarding the reason we're out here in the first place, which has nothing to do with strolling in the sand or soaking up rays or a game played in bare feet.

Nope, the 'why' behind our whereabouts is the same as a week ago, when the NFL schedule required us to layer-up in a wind chill down into the teens some 2,100 miles to the east.

Then and there, it was for a game at Green Bay, a 26-21 loss that snapped a seven-game winning streak. Here and now it's for another against San Diego. Under the lights, on grass, with a great deal at stake.

With that in mind, here are a few things I'm thinking about:

After the Packers went 10-for-17 on 3rd down, punted just once -- and not until the 2:21 mark of the 3rd quarter -- and consumed 36 minutes-plus of possession time, can the Pats stop the Chargers sooner rather than later?

It won't be easy. San Diego ranks third in the NFL with a .475 conversion rate on 3rd down and is coming off a near-perfect showing in this category at Baltimore. The Chargers went 9-for-11 on 3rd down in a 34-33 come-from-behind win over the Ravens. Quarterback Philip Rivers completed all eight of his third-down passes for 159 yards.

Meanwhile, Eddie Royal, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass with 38 seconds left last week, has a team-high 19 receptions and three scores this season on 3rd down. Tight end Antonio Gates is another clutch receiver in such critical spots. He's made five of his nine TD catches and totaled 253 receiving yards in 2014 on 3rd down alone.

"With all the mistakes we had last week, we were still in the game, a couple of plays away," cornerback Brandon Browner said several days after the victory-clinching 3rd-and-4 conversion by Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb with 2:28 to go at Green Bay. "We just got to get better on third down."

While Browner and Darrelle Revis were matched-up mostly with the Packers' top two receivers, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb (when not aligned in the backfield), the Patriots were stung by the Packers' other options. Rookie Davante Adams had six receptions for 121 yards, tight end Richard Rodgers caught a 32-yard touchdown strike and tight end Andrew Quarless made a couple of drive-prolonging receptions in the 4th quarter. Here come the Chargers, who are just as capable, if not more so, of achieving such balance in the passing game. Can the Patriots take away enough weapons to win?

With 11th-year quarterback Philip Rivers distributing the ball perhaps better than ever, San Diego is the NFL's only team to feature four players with at least 500 yards and four touchdowns receiving. At Baltimore, the Chargers enjoyed a franchise first with four players amassing at least 80 receiving yards.

Among them is second-year Keenan Allen (121), veteran Malcom Floyd (85), Gates (83) and Royal (81). In all, Rivers passed for 383 yards and three scores, throwing short and deep, over the middle and to the outside.

"(Rivers) can attack the defense at all three levels," New England head coach Bill Belichick said on Wednesday. "He's got a good touch on the ball, does a good job using all his receivers, gets the ball to the backs, obviously the tight ends, the receivers down field on catch-and-run plays and on downfield routes."

"It's another complete group," safety Devin McCourty added about the Chargers' cadre of receivers. "You've got the tall guys, the vertical guys, you've got guys who can catch the ball for five yards and run, you've got the tight end that can go under routes, stretch the field, inside, outside.

"We can't focus on one guy. They have everything you want in a passing game to go along with a great quarterback. Even the backs do a good job catching the ball out of the backfield. It's just another tough game, as far as we got to know where everybody is. It's going to come down again to match-ups. When you're going against great teams with good players, it's going to come down to individual match-ups within the game."

A major factor in the game plan and, ultimately, the outcome of the last Sunday's affair was the maneuverability of Rodgers. He ran five times for 22 yards, including a long gain of 17. More importantly, he bought extra time for receivers to come open, whether actually leaving the pocket or simply threatening to do so. Next up is Rivers, who Belichick says "has deceptive mobility" and "is more active maybe than what he gets credit for." Can the Patriots get to him before he gets to them?

The best way to reach Rivers, who's been battling a rib injury for several weeks, figures to be the shortest, most direct route to the quarterback -- right up the gut. Or, put another way, through the middle of the Chargers' line.

By Sunday night of Week 14, San Diego is expected to start its fifth center of the season. In Baltimore, their fourth center Chris Watt, a rookie out of Notre Dame, went down to a calf injury. He was replaced by a former guard for the Fighting Irish, Trevor Robinson, a third-year pro signed in October off Cincinnati's practice squad.

Theretofore, Nick Hartwick (ankle), Doug Legursky (knee) and ex-Patriot Rich Ohrnberger (back) were placed on injured reserve. All occupied the same role, which normally encompasses setting offensive-line protections before delivering the snap.

"It's more of Philip and the rest of the lineup being more familiar with that player who's playing and doing a good job with making sure they know all the calls, they do certain things," Chargers head coach Mike McCoy says of the challenge caused by his team's unusual predicament. "You know, football's football. Inside zone's inside zone. Base protection's base protection. But it's more just learning the terminology and it's just really being comfortable with the quarterback. That's the biggest difference.

"No one's going to feel sorry for (us) on Sunday, so (we) just keep on plugging away. I don't think it's going to happen very often that someone's playing with five centers in a league year."

Compounding the problems at center is the uncertain status of right tackle D.J. Fluker, a first-round pick from Alabama in 2013 with 27 regular-season starts in his brief career. Fluker appeared on San Diego's practice report Thursday as a non-participant, due to a concussion. He was listed as a full participant Friday, yet is considered "questionable" for Sunday night.

New England's final practice report of the week featured a 'doubtful' (Chris White) and 10 others who are 'questionable,' including linebacker Dont'a Hightower (shoulder) and receiver Julian Edelman (thigh). Reporting for ESPN Boston, the always-astute Mike Reiss observed that Hightower seemed affected by his injury at the outset of Friday's practice. How about Edelman?

"I'm feeling a day better than yesterday," Edelman said before Wednesday's workout.

The Patriots hope that three days better than Edelman felt mid week will be close enough to his best to help beat the eight-win Chargers, coming off three straight victories.

At Green Bay, he was the recipient of a must-have 4th-and-3 conversion on New England's final possession. Tom Brady found him for five yards. As Edelman's 77th reception of the season, it was his seventh -- and final -- of the frigid afternoon.

He made the grab at the Packers' 46-yard line, near the boundary close to the Patriots' bench. Edelman got to his feet and stood on the sideline, hands on hips, flexing his left leg, only to re-appear for just two of the team's final seven offensive plays.

If there's any way, within reason, to get on the field at the start and finish of Sunday evening, Edelman will find it.

"Every competitor wants to be out there," he offered, "when the game's on the line."

There's a lot on the line Sunday night. Don't expect Edelman and his teammates, unlike some of us along for the ride out West, to get distracted by San Diego's surroundings. They know why they're here, and why they aren't.

"Obviously the scenery is different. But our approach has to be the same," said special teams captain Matthew Slater. "We can't sacrifice any preparation. "We have to remind ourselves we're not on vacation."

Bob Socci is the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.


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