|Undefeated Mirage Gives Way to Reality of Flawed Patriots Team in OT Loss to Broncos||Gronkowski Avoids Major Injury||Connelly’s Top Ten: Harper Drop, Officials Desperate to be Liked, Run Out Clock||There’s Hope for a Hanley Trade|
Welcome back to Sports of Boston’s weekly report card for your New England Patriots. After a record-setting offensive explosion in Week 1, the Patriots continued their near-unstoppable passing attack Sunday, beating the Chargers 35-21.
So who stood out and who hung back? Read on and find out!
Tom Brady followed his record-setting game against the Dolphins with another record-setting game against the Chargers. Throwing for 423 yards, Brady’s two-week total of 940 passing yards broke the record set earlier Sunday by the Panthers’ Cam Newton. Brady completed 77.5 percent of his passes, including converting five of the Patriots’ seven third downs. His three-touchdown, zero-interception day earned him a 135.7 rating, and he completed passes to seven different receivers.
Three Patriots running backs combined for 91 yards and a touchdown. BenJarvus Green-Ellis‘ 16-yard score late in the game following a Chargers fumble turned what could have been a 28-28 tie into a 35-21 almost-insurmountable Patriots lead. Green-Ellis led the team with 70 yards on 17 carries, doing most of the damage in the second half. Danny Woodhead was rarely used Sunday, but ran in a matter-of-fact two-point conversion in the third to give the Patriots a 28-14 lead. Stevan Ridley got his first two NFL carries, averaging 4.5 yards per play and displaying the spinning agility that dazzled Patriots fans during preseason.
Once again the Patriots wide receivers and tight ends were more than capable of handling Brady’s pass-happy offense, repeatedly chewing up the San Diego secondary. Tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski (148 combined receiving yards) once again could not be matched, especially in the end zone, where Brady hit them three times. Hernandez’s speed and agility and Gronkowski’s strength and soft hands make them so, so hard to cover. Hopefully Hernandez’s sprained MCL won’t affect him once he returns in three weeks.
While Brady loved his tight-ends in the end zone, he went to Deion Branch (team-high eight catches, 129 yards) most overall. Perhaps Branch’s two best catches were his simplest. At the San Diego 47 with nine seconds and no timeouts, Brady hit Branch for two quick strikes along the sideline. Both times Branch showed great discipline by catching the ball and immediately going out of bounds to stop the clock. Brady and Branch knocked off 18 yards in eight seconds, setting up a Stephen Gostkowski 47-yard field goal to give the Patriots a 20-7 lead at halftime.
Chad Ochocinco also contributed two receptions for 45 yards. Patriots fans get an A for their genuinely enthusiastic and supportive reactions to those catches.
The offensive line still hasn’t quite sprung the Patriots rushing game the way it ought to. When they do, the passing game will become even more lethal. The Chargers sacked Brady twice, hit him three more times and recorded two more tackles-for-loss. Coupled with Matt Light‘s third-quarter holding penalty, the offensive line’s overall performance Sunday left room for improvement. During one play, Charger defensive lineman Antonio Garay grabbed Brady below his knees and Brady tumbled to the ground. Every Patriot fan momentarily froze, petrified would Brady would be re-injured. The Patriots offensive line must be extra careful with Brady, no matter how many years past surgery he may be.
For the second straight game the Patriots defensive line held opposing rushers to under 100 yards. While more pressure on Chargers’ quarterback Philip Rivers would have been preferred, Mark Anderson‘s strip-sack and Kyle Love‘s fumble recovery late in the game ended any possibility of a Chargers comeback. Vince Wilfork hit Rivers twice and also showed both tremendous reaction-time and concentration on a play right before half, tipping a Rivers pass into the air and hauling it in for the interception. The pick and 36-yard return (18 of which were lost on a penalty) preserved the then-10-point Patriots lead and set up Gostkowski’s touchdown to extend it right before halftime. It also ranked with Dan Connolly’s kickoff return last season as “best/funniest big-man run in Patriots history.”
Though the linebackers get some of the blame for the Chargers’ 372 passing yards, they also made some of the biggest defensive plays of the game. Jerod Mayo‘s goal-line tackle during the second quarter stalled a Chargers drive at the 1, preserved a 10-7 lead and led to a touchdown pass to Gronkowski at the other end of the field. In the fourth, Mayo stripped fullback Mike Tolbert behind the Patriots 34-yard-line and Rob Ninkovich recovered. That play preserved a 20-14 lead and led to another touchdown pass to Gronkowski.
Last week, solid third-down coverage bumped up a terrible secondary to a reasonable B-. This time, with the Chargers converting 10 of 12 third downs, they get no such bonuses. The Patriots’ secondary is far and away the weakest part of this team. Every defensive back looked foolish Sunday, helpless as their coverages out-ran, out-jumped or out-muscled them for the ball. They may have held Pro Bowler Antonio Gates without a catch, but they allowed 29 other catches while defensing only two. The defensive backs committed four penalties, including one by Leigh Bodden on a third-down play in the second. Bodden’s holding didn’t affect the play, but a drive that should have ended with an incomplete pass extended all the way to the Patriots 29. Wilfork’s interception saved the drive, but on the return Devin McCourty‘s illegal block nearly cost the Patriots a field goal.
Discounting the Chargers’ midfield start following a failed Patriots fourth-down conversion, Gostkowski and Zoltan Mesko averaged opposing starting yardage behind the 20-yard-line, with Gostkowski kicking three touchbacks that visibly frustrated San Diego kick returner Richard Goodman. Gostkowksi also nailed both field goals and all four extra-point attempts. While the specials team unit played penalty-free, James Ihedigbo‘s poor punt-protection led to Mesko suffering a knee injury in the third quarter. While no timetable has been set for Mesko, and he returned to the game as a place-holder in the fourth, losing his considerable leg-strength could hurt down the road.