Patriots

Patriots escape San Diego with 23-20 victory

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Patriots escape San Diego with 23-20 victory

By Art Martone
CSNNE.com

It's been said -- by Vince Lombardi, among others -- that winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.

As proof, may we present the New England Patriots.

Summary and statistics Play by play

The final score -- New England 23, San Diego 20 -- wasabout the only thing the Patriots can really feel good about Sunday,considering how the game played:

In the first half, they managed 34 total yards, their fewest number offirst-half yards in a game since Oct. 12, 2003. Despite that, they led athalftime, 13-3 . . . but couldn't shake the feeling they'd letopportunity slip away, as the Chargers committed a mind-boggling total of four turnovers. It was only a 10-point lead because the Pats cameaway with field goals -- including once when they took over on the SanDiego 8-yard line -- or nothing instead of touchdowns after most of the turnovers.

In the second half, their offense finally got in gear and gave them aseemingly comfortable 23-6 lead with 11:27 to play. Then it was thedefense's turn to fold up, allowing two touchdown drives in a span of 3minutes and 20 seconds that narrowed the lead to 23-20.

In a horrifying flashback to Indianapolis 2009, the Pats were stuffedon a fourth-and-1 at their own 49 with two minutes to go, giving SanDiego the ball with a short field to tie or win the game.

(And those flashbacks weren't limited to the stands, the press box, and living rooms across New England. "Shoot, it was like the Colts game all over again," Jerod Mayo said when asked when he thought of the decision to go for it.)

And in the end, it was the last of San Diego's suicidal mistakes --this one a false start on a 45-yard field-goal attempt by Kris Brown --more than anything New England did that enabled the Pats to escape with thewin. The five-yard penalty made it a 50-yard try, and Brown hit theright upright with the kick.

So instead of heading into overtime, the Pats are heading home in a tie for first place in the AFC East and also tied for having the best record in the NFL at 5-1.

"I wouldn't say we're in playoff form," said Tom Brady, "but I would say we're 5-1 and we've played some pretty tough teams."

Do the Chargers qualify as one of those tough teams? Well . . .

A 32-yard field goal by Brown had given them a 3-0 lead with 5:23 to play in the first quarter, and then the San Diego self-destruction began.

First it was a fumble by Kris Wilson that was recovered by Mayo at the San Diego 22. The Pats -- helped a little by an illegal-use-of-the-hands penalty that gave them a first-and-goal at the 5 -- went in on a one-yard, Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski touchdown that put them ahead, 7-3.

On the Chargers' next drive, rookie Richard Goodman committed their second turnover of the game, and it was one for the ages. After catching a 25-yard pass from Philip Rivers, he happily flipped the ball to the ground . . . except that he hadn't yet been touched and the play was still alive. James Sanders scooped up the ball and the Pats got possession on their own 41.

They were forced to punt, and San Diego moved from its 19 to the Pats' 32. But then came Turnover Number 3 and it was a doozy, too. Rivers threw behind Jacob Hester on a screen pass, and Hester made no attempt to retrieve the ball after it hit the ground. Linebacker Rob Ninkovich grabbed it and went 63 yards down the left sideline to the San Diego 8.

"We're not capable of taking care of the football," said a visibly perturbed Chargers coach Norv Turner.

They're capable of playing defense, though, as they pushed the Patriots' offense -- "What offense?" asked Brady sarcastically about New England's first-half efforts -- back to the 23 before a 40-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski gave New England a 10-3 lead.

Turnover Number 4 -- a Devin McCourty interception on a third-and-17 pass down the right sideline -- proved harmless, but a pass-interference penalty on Antoine Cason in the final two minutes put the ball on the San Diego 21. That eventually led to a 35-yard Gostkowski field goal that had the Pats in front, 13-3, at the half.

Yes, a 13-3 lead. Even though Brady was 6-for-16 for 35 yards and had been sacked three times. Even though they'd been outgained 146-34. Even though they only held the ball for about 12 12 minutes.

"We had a hard time moving at all," said Brady. "We couldn't get intoa rhythm at all. The second half was better, but I don't think it wasgreat by any stretch."

The first drive was. The Pats went to a no-huddle -- Deion Branch credited the move with changing the rhythm of the game and jumpstarting New England's attack -- and put together a 17-play, 79-yard drive that consumed 8 minutes and 35 seconds. It culminated with a one-yard touchdown run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, his fourth straight game with a rushing TD, that put New England in front, 20-3.

The teams traded field goals -- a 28-yarder by Brown on the first play of the fourth quarter, and another 35-yarder by Gostkowski -- and New England led, 23-6, with 11:27 to play.

And then the fun began.

First the Chargers went 67 yards and scored on a four-yard pass from Rivers to Antonio Gates with 7:21 left, making it 23-13. Then San Diego recovered an onside kick and went 60 yards -- key plays: consecutive passes by Rivers of 20 yards to Seyi Ajitotutu and 26 yards to Gates -- for the touchdown (three-yard run by Mike Tolbert) that cut New England's lead to 23-20 with 4:01 left.

The Pats caught a break when Brown sent the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, giving them the ball at the 40. A nine-yard Brady-to-Wes Welker pass made it second-and-1, but Danny Woodhead lost two yards on the next play. Another Brady-to-Welker pass gained two yards -- hearts were in New England mouths when the ball came loose and the Chargers gathered it up and began racing toward the end zone, but officials (correctly) ruled that the ball was down by contact -- and made it fourth-and-1 at the two-minute warning.

Fourth-and-1.

"Its Bill Belichick," said defensive back Kyle Arrington. "I knew we were going for it."

The 2009 season turned when they failed in a similar circumstance at Indianapolis, and they failed again this time as Green-Ellis was slammed back two yards.

"You've got to be able to think you can get that one yard," said Brady, who later added: "We tried it. We didn't execute it very well. But I'd go for it every time."

"Belichick has enough confidence in us to get it done on defense if they didn't get the first down," said Mayo, "and we got it done."

The first play was a 12-yard Rivers-to-Gates pass that gave the Chargers a first down at the Pats' 35. Rivers then missed on consecutive tosses to Patrick Crayton, and another pass to Gates only gained eight yards.

"Our defense came up big when we needed it," said Brady.

So out came Brown. But the final Chargers boo-boo -- a false start penalty -- pushed it just out of his reach. He clanked it off the right goalpost from 50 yards out, and the Pats had their victory.

"Makes that long ride back a lot easier," said defensive lineman Gerard Warren.

That it does.

Art Martone can be reached at amartone@comcastsportsnet.com

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady is on pace for 5,224 yards passing in 2017, just a shade under his total from his career-high in 2011. He's on track to have 34 touchdowns and just five picks. Barring a continued run of ridiculous efficiency from Kansas City's Alex Smith, those numbers would be MVP-caliber in all likelihood.

But Brady's not thrilled with the way he's played of late. What gives? 

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In his past two games, he hasn't thrown the football as consistently as he would have liked. After starting the season with a 10-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he's 3-to-2 in the last couple of weeks. His accuracy has been at times pinpoint (as it was on his 42-yard completion to Brandin Cooks to help set up a Rob Gronkowski score against the Jets), but it has also been uncharacteristically erratic.

He was picked deep down the middle of the field by Buster Skrine last week, but the more concerning throw may have been the quick out-route to Gronkowski that Skrine dropped for what should have been an easy interception. Brady missed Phillip Dorsett on what looked like it could have been a long touchdown with Dorsett running free behind the defense. He threw behind Chris Hogan twice in the game, one of which opened up Hogan to a rib-shot that landed him on the injury report this week.

Against the Jets, Brady was not sacked and he was hit only four times -- a light day for him compared to other weeks this season when he's been battered. Yet he still completed just under 53 percent of his passes for 257 yards and a season-low 6.76 yards per attempt. 

"Well, I've got to hit the open . . . If the throws are there I've got to be able to make them," he said on Friday. "It's disappointing when I don't. To me, it just comes back to technique and fundamentals and making sure everything is working and that's the consistent daily thing that you're working on. I'm always working on my accuracy.

"I wish I hit them all. I'm capable of hitting them all and I need to be able to do that. I said last week that some of these games wouldn't be as close if I was playing better in the red area. I think some of those missed opportunities in the pass game with me hitting guys would really help our team. Hopefully, I can do a better job for this team."

Brady is no longer listed on the Patriots injury report, but he dealt with a left shoulder injury against both the Bucs and the Jets, and it's worth wondering if that somehow impacted how his passes traveled in those games. Balance is key in Brady's world, and even though he can make flat-footed throws look easy, perhaps an injury to his front side limited his ability to place the ball where he wanted. 

Keeping Brady upright could go a long way in helping the 40-year-old regain his form from Weeks 2-4 when he didn't dip below a 104 quarterback rating. Bill Belichick said earlier this week that part of the reason the Jets pass-rush wasn't quite as effective as others they'd faced this year was his team's ability to run the ball. Productive rushing attempts on first and second down mean manageable third downs, which mean shorter pass attempts. Those of course, in theory, lead to less time standing in the pocket and a healthier quarterback.

"It's great," Brady said of his team's recent surge running the football. "I mean, to be able to run the ball consistently in the NFL is important for every offense. It does take a lot of . . . I wouldn't say pressure, it's just production. If 400 yards of offense is what you're looking for and you can get 150 from your running game, the 250 has got to come in the passing game. If you're getting 50 yards in the rushing game then it means you've got to throw for more.

"I don't think it's pressure it's just overall you're going to get production in different areas and the backs are a big part of our offense and handing the ball off to them is an easy way for us to gain yards if we're all coordinated and doing the right thing. But those guys are running hard. The line is doing a great job up front finishing blocks and so forth."

Against the Falcons and their talented -- though underperforming -- offense this weekend, the running game could be key. First, it could help the Patriots defense by controlling possession and keeping Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman off the field. Next are the obvious advantages for the signal-caller who could use a stress-free day in the pocket to help him solve his recent accuracy issues. 

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