10 things for Patriots-Chargers

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are 10 areas that project to be crucial in Sunday's game between the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots (4:15 p.m. ET):

1. Antonio Gates' availability and effectiveness. The Chargers' tight end has a team-high 31 catches and seven touchdowns. It is often said that Bill Belichick is effective at game-planning to take away what an opponent does best, and Gates -- who missed practice all week and is listed as questionable -- is the Chargers' No. 1 threat. If he plays, how effective is he? And for the Patriots, how do they defend him?

2. Personnel at safety and defending the deep pass. Safety Jarrad Page (calf) is out and there are still questions on the health of safety James Sanders (hamstring). This is not the matchup to be thin at safety, in part because of the Chargers' deep passing game. Don't be surprised if the Patriots promote Sergio Brown from the practice squad to the active roster.

3. Pass protection. The Chargers are in a three-way tie for second in the NFL in sacks (21) and are No. 1 in sacks per pass play, and while the statistic is somewhat skewed by nine of those coming against the Cardinals, this is still a fast defense that can create havoc. Watch the matchup of tackles Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer against outside linebacker Shaun Phillips (team-high six sacks).

4. Special teams, Brandon Tate and Patrick Chung. The Chargers have given up two kickoff returns for touchdowns (by the Seahawks' Leon Washington), one punt return for a touchdown (by the Chiefs' Dexter McCluster) and have had two punts blocked. This is a case of two units going in opposite directions, as the Patriots have two kickoff returns for a touchdown by Tate, while Chung has blocked a field goal and a punt.

5. Aaron Hernandez bouncing back. The rookie tight end dropped two passes in overtime of Sunday's win over the Baltimore Ravens, which could have been costly. How does he respond?

6. Right cornerback personnel. Darius Butler started the first two weeks, but he's been replaced by Kyle Arrington for the past three games. Arrington is questionable with a groin injury, and given the Chargers' ability to strike down the field, this could be an area of concern for the Patriots. If Arrington can't go, Butler or third-year man Terrence Wheatley are the likely replacements.

7. Reduction in penalties. Although last week was their most exciting win of the season, the Patriots were still flagged for 11 penalties, two of which were declined. That type of performance isn't likely to produce a road victory.

8. Red-zone defense. No team in the NFL has made more trips inside the opponents' red zone than San Diego (25) and have scored just 13 touchdowns in those 25 trips. The Patriots' red-zone defense ranks 24th in the NFL in terms of touchdown percentage.

9. Darren Sproles in space. Much like Danny Woodhead gives the Patriots a nice contrast to power back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Sproles nicely complements Chargers backs Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert. He's proven to be an explosive playmaker in space, on offense and on special teams.

10. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the running game. The Patriots' ability to establish the run set up play-action opportunities against the Ravens, especially on the game-winning drive in overtime. This looks like the type of matchup in which Green-Ellis should be used prominently to help establish an early run presence.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.