FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Los Angeles Chargers will present an interesting challenge for the New England Patriots on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
The Chargers celebrated their move to Los Angles by losing their first four games of the season, with Philip Rivers throwing six touchdown passes and five interceptions.
Since that start, though, Los Angeles has won three straight -- and Rivers has thrown for six touchdowns and no picks.
That, of course, could present a problem for New England (5-2), which last week shut down a Falcons attack that for some reason decided running the ball early was a key. Atlanta's Matt Ryan became the first quarterback this season to not throw for 300 yards against the Patriots.
Prior to New England's easy 23-7 win over the Falcons on Sunday night, the Patriots became the first team in NFL history to allow at least 300 yards passing in each of its first six games.
Now comes Rivers, who had two 300-yard games in the 0-4 start but has thrown for 258, 268 and 183 in the three wins.
And, of course, Rivers comes in joined by tight end Antonio Gates, always a headache for opposing defenses.
"Phil is a tremendous player, a great competitor, a really smart player," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday, adding he got to know Rivers while coaching him in a Pro Bowl. "He's a real football guy like Tom (Brady), like Peyton Manning, guys like that. They're just deep into it.
"He has a ton of experience. He does a great job of making adjustments on the line of scrimmage whether it's changing protections or if he sees a certain coverage he can get into a play that will attack that coverage."
Added Patriot quarterback Brady of Rivers: "He's a great player. (I've) always admired Philip, and he's a great passer of the ball. I think he does a great job of finding the receivers, the tight ends, he spreads it around. He's got a lot of confidence back there.
"He's really not fazed by much. He has kind of seen everything. I love watching their offense play. I think they do a good job involving everybody, and Philip is always standing in there making the throws. That's really what you look for, and he does a great job of that. He's a great player."
The Patriots, battered and bruised in their secondary, played well on defense (and perhaps played their most complete game of the season) Sunday night, but they had help from the opposition. Now, they have to deal with the Rivers-Gates combination, one almost as potent as New England's Brady-Rob Gronkowski quarterback/tight end relationship.
As far as the secondary goes, Eric Rowe (groin) and Stephon Gilmore (concussion, ankle) have been missing. Rowe was still out Wednesday, while Gilmore, who has missed two games after struggling with his new team, was back and limited Wednesday.
Two of the three victories in the Chargers' winning streak have come on the road, and the players realize the task ahead after losing four in a row out of the gate.
"We've dug ourselves into a hole. And we've won three in a row, but we've lost four in a row. So we can't get comfortable at all," coach Anthony Lynn said earlier this week. "We're not even .500 yet, so we've got the world champs coming up on Sunday. I think we're confident, but I don't think anyone is overconfident."
The Patriots have won the past three games of this series, the Chargers' last win over New England coming in 2008.
"We try to encourage the guys and talk to them about the peaks and valleys of the season," Gates said. "You got your highs and lows. And if you continue to focus on the past, you can never reach your potential. That's why we preach one game at a time, one week at a time. We started out 0-4, and we're still the same team. We're still the same guys making the same plays. We just have to believe in that and trust that process, which we have.
"To me, we're the same team we were when we started 0-0."
The Patriots are a bit different than what folks are used to seeing -- especially Sunday night, when they used their deep crew of running backs to dominate the clock. The group was bolstered by the return of running back Rex Burkhead, who had missed four games with an injury to his ribs.
"It's a great group," Brady said of his running backs. "There's five guys in there, and they all contribute in their own way and the versatility and I think the enthusiasm (and) the support for one another is really great to see. All of them had such a great week last week, and they've had great weeks all year."
Linebacker Dont'a Hightower, wide receiver Danny Amendola and defensive tackle Malcolm Brown, all injured Sunday night, were missing from New England's practice Wednesday.
The Chargers lost starting left guard Matt Slauson for the season on Sunday due to a torn biceps. Rookie Dan Feeney will start in his place. Right tackle Joe Barksdale, who left the 21-0 win over the Denver Broncos last weekend with a leg injury, was missing from practice Wednesday. Gates was among those listed as limited.
The Patriots placed linebacker Harvey Langi, injured in a car accident earlier this month, on the non-football related injured reserve and signed linebacker Trevor Reilly to the 53-man roster.