Finer efforts have most certainly been there for the Patriots, but an ugly 21-13 win gets New England to a much-needed bye week at 6-2.
Minus Dont’a Hightower (for the season), as well as Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe and Malcom Brown, the Patriots defense did what it needed to do in flummoxing Philip Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers all afternoon long.
LA was every bit complicit in its own demise, however. Every time you looked up it seemed as though the Chargers were shooting themselves in the foot. Right from the get-go it was clear the team would beat themselves, with a curious coaching decision on the very first series of the game.
Faced with a third-and-17, Philip Rivers found a soft spot in coverage to his ageless tight end Antonio Gates for a 16-yard gain. Out at the New England 34-yard line, going for the first down seemed like a no-brainer given the sloppy conditions in Foxboro. Instead, Los Angeles head coach Anthony Lynn sent out Nick Novak, signed off the scrap heap four weeks ago, for his first field goal attempt of 50 or more yards this season. The kick came up well short, with Lawrence Guy getting a piece of the ball ever so slightly at the line of scrimmage to ensure it wouldn’t cross the goalposts.
The first scoring drive of the game for the Patriots featured two more significant missteps for the Chargers. On third-and-4 from the LA 34, Brady caught the Chargers with 12 men on the field to pick up an automatic first down and keep the drive going. The 14-play, 77-yard drive culminated with an uncovered Rob Gronkowski hauling in his fifth touchdown of the season, setting the Patriots up to tie the game on Stephen Gostkowski’s PAT.
The gold medal mistake for the Chargers, however, was undoubtedly on a punt return…a play that ended with New England on top for good. Travis Benjamin, just one week after receiving AFC Player of the Week honors, fielded Ryan Allen’s punt at his own 11-yard line. In search of a running lane, Benjamin went straight back to his own end zone in attempting to pick up an edge. The return could not have backfired worse for LA, with Brandon King tackling Benjamin over the goal line for a safety to give the Patriots a 9-7 lead with 9:19 to go in the second quarter.
Los Angeles did hold the early 7-0 lead on an 87-yard run by Melvin Gordon, the Patriots run defense trading places with its pass defense as the culprit on a big play. But the Chargers had little success in any facet of the game from there on, as Gordon’s run accounted for 24.9 percent of LA’s 349 yards of offense.
Rivers completed 17 of 30 passes for 212 yards, the second week in a row New England has held a quarterback to under 300 yards passing after allowing each of the first six quarterbacks it faced to surpass the three-century mark.
"Really, it’s just doing our job," defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. said of how the Patriots continue to improve defensively despite continuing to lose key players to injury. "When we lose guys like Malcom, Stephon or Dont’a, it’s the guys behind who have to step up and do their job. That’s what’s been happening every week. It’s pretty much doing our job every day so results like this can happen more."
The lone turnover for Rivers came on the final play of the game, a heave to the end zone with 1 second left on the clock, but a fumble he wound up keeping proved harmful all the same. On second-and-10 from the Patriots’ 30-yard line on the first Chargers possession of the second half, Rivers evaded pressure once and appeared to recover in time to set up for a second crack downfield. Instead, he dropped the ball backwards as he prepared to throw, resulting in a 21-yard loss.
All of this to say, the Patriots allowed Los Angeles to hang around far too long. Stephen Gostkowski missed two of his first five field goal attempts – he didn’t line up for any kick further than 43 yards out – and when it could have easily have been a three-score game, the Chargers cut their deficit to 18-13 with 8:30 to go in the fourth quarter.
"It stinks and it’s tough to swallow, but we won and it’s a little easier to wake up tomorrow knowing that when you do badly the team can pick you up," Gostkowski said. "That’s part of being a part of a good team."
Off a Gostkowski miss, Rivers took Los Angeles 67 yards in just three plays, exposing either Malcolm Butler or Devin McCourty on a 24-yard scoring pass to Benjamin. Butler and McCourty appeared to disagree with one another on who was assigned to Benjamin in the aftermath of the play.
Still, the Chargers failed on their two-point conversion to prevent themselves from getting within a field goal of the Patriots.
New England struggled to find consistency on the ground all afternoon long, carrying the ball 32 times for only 97 yards – a 2.9 average per carry.
But the backs collectively made up for a lackluster effort running the ball by chipping in for Brady in the passing game. James White and Rex Burkhead were strong in particular, with White catching five passes for a team-high 85 yards and Burkhead contributing a team-best seven catches for 68 yards.
"We didn’t finish them off," Brady said of the offense’s inability to finish off drives today, leading to Gostkowski’s six field goal attempts. "I think we just have to do a better job of that. I know I’ve said that about 100 times this year, but it’s tough. I mean, we’re trying. It’s just the execution is coming up a little short in critical times. I’m glad we won. That’s the most important thing.
"You know, starting 0-1 and then being 6-2 – you know, that’s a lot of mental toughness. So that’s good and we’ve got to keep it going."
Los Angeles continued to help the Patriots along on what would be their final possession of the game with a trio of penalties to keep the ball – and clock – moving. The Chargers were called for a 15-yard facemask, defensive holding and off-sides on the series, which ended with a Gostkowski 26-yard field goal to give New England a 21-13 edge with 1:08 remaining in the contest.
In all, Los Angeles committed 10 penalties for 77 yards.
Starting right tackle Marcus Cannon left the game with an ankle injury and wide receiver Chris Hogan left with a shoulder injury. In the place of Cannon, the Patriots turned to swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle.
"I just wanted to be as ready as I could be when my number was called," Waddle said.
New England has just one home game between now and Christmas Eve – Sunday, Nov. 26 vs. the Miami Dolphins. Out of the bye week, the Patriots will be in Denver to take on the Broncos on Sunday Night Football on Nov. 12 at 8:20 p.m. on NBC.