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In key situations in the fourth quarter, Stephen Gostkowski is the perfect field goal kicker. Kris Brown… not so much. Brown’s 50-yard field goal attempt, pushed back 5 yards by a San Diego false start penalty, bounced off the right goal-post, and the New England Patriots held on to beat the San Diego Chargers, 23-20. Brown’s missed field goal came after the Chargers held the Patriots back on a fourth-and-1 from the Patriots 49-yard line.
When asked if he second-guessed the decision to go for it on fourth-and-1, Tom Brady said, “heck no. I’ll go for it every time.” Brady also said that had they executed the play the correctly, they probably would have been able to run the clock out and win the game.
The Patriots offense struggled in the first half, amassing just 38 total yards. “Oh God,” Brady said when asked about the first half. “What offense?” But the team clicked as they began the second half. Up 13-3 at halftime, the Patriots began the second half by orchestrating a 17-play, 76-yard touchdown drive, eating up 8:22 in the process. On that drive, the Patriots converted a fourth-and-1 and overcame a second-and-17 before BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran it in from 1 yard out, putting the Patriots up 20-3.
The touchdown put the Patriots up three scores midway through the third quarter, but the score could have been much more lopsided at that point. San Diego turned the ball over four times in the first half, twice on plays where the fumbling Charger thought the play was dead. On the first of such plays, Chargers wide receiver Richard Goodman caught a 25-yard pass and went to the grass. As he was getting up, he placed the ball on the ground. Since he was not touched while going to the ground or while lying there, the play was ruled a catch and a fumble, and James Sanders picked it up and returned it to the New England 41. The Patriots punted that drive away, but on the next fumble they came away with points.
Midway through the second quarter, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers attempted a sideways pass from the Patriots 32-yard line to fullback Jacob Hester. The ball glanced off Hester’s outstretched hand, and Hester slowed up as if it was an incomplete pass. However, the play was ruled a fumbled lateral, and Rob Ninkovich dove on it, got up, then returned it to the San Diego 8-yard line. The Patriots ended that drive with a 40-yard field goal, putting them up 10-3.
“That’s what we teach our guys to do,” Bill Belichick said. “You play it out, you ask questions later. Forget about the whistle.”
The Patriots also scored their first touchdown of the game after a turnover. Late in the first quarter, Brandon Spikes forced a fumble and Jerrod Mayo recovered it, giving the Patriots the ball at the San Diego 22-yard line. That drive ended on a 1-yard touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski, a play in which Gronkowski lined up on the left side, then cut across the linemen to the back of the end zone, catching Brady’s play-action pass with outstretched arms. Brady finished the game 19/32 for 159 yards and a touchdown.
Devin McCourty also intercepted a Rivers pass with just over five minutes to go in the first half, but the Patriots went three-and-out on the ensuing drive. Regarding the Patriots’ first-half offensive woes, Brady said, “we gotta do a better job starting the game, we gotta do a better job taking advantage of their turnovers, we gotta do a better job throwing the ball.”
Momentum was shifting the Chargers way in the fourth quarter. The Chargers cut the Patriots lead to 23-13 midway through the fourth on a 4-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Gates, then recovered a surprise on-side kick by Brown. They then marched 60 yards down-field, scoring another touchdown on a 1-yard Mike Tolbert run, cutting the lead to just 23-20. However, the Chargers were unable to convert their 50-yard field foal attempt, and the Patriots knelt down once to end the game.
Although Rivers was able to light up the Patriots secondary, passing for 336 yards, a touchdown and an interception, against the run the defense was much more stout. The New England defensive line allowed just 38 yards on the ground. They also sacked Rivers twice, the first one by Brandon Deaderick on second-and-7 from the New England 10-yard line. The sack backed the Chargers up to the 13, they failed to get the first down and they had to settle for a field goal.
Brady, meanwhile, was sacked four times, including twice in two plays from inside the Chargers 10-yard line. The offensive line is continuing to struggle without two-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins. They have now allowed 12 sacks in just six games.
Despite the offensive struggles of the team, Belichick said that the defense and especially special teams played well enough to cover for them. “You got three phases of the game, and if you can control two out of those three, you got a pretty good chance to win,” he said.