SAN DIEGO - Eleven months, 12 regular-season workweeks, and 314 days had passed since heads last hung in a Patriots locker room, since voices were reduced to whispers, since smiles and laughter were barred. During New England’s 12-game run through the Saints, Jets (twice), Browns, Bills, Dolphins, Panthers, Raiders, Steelers (twice), Rams, and Chiefs, such a scene seemed as unlikely an occurrence as Automatic Adam Vinatieri pushing a 41-yard field goal wide right. Yes, it was unrealistic. It was also difficult for fans not to wonder when, if at all, New England’s good thing would end.
The (pipe) dream of an undefeated season was ruined on a nightmare of an afternoon for the Patriots at Qualcomm Stadium. There had already been signs that the end of the streak was near. The Patriots received a polite wake-up call in last week’s victory over the Chiefs. Well, they got a rude awakening yesterday from a now 4-0 Chargers team that heard all week that they hadn’t beaten anybody.
This morning San Diego can say it is the first somebody to beat the men who, since Nov. 18, 2001, had been unbeatable. The Chargers beat the Patriots, 21-14, powered by LaDainian Tomlinson’s 217 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Now where do the Patriots turn? The drawing board was supposed to have already been revisited after Priest Holmes ran for 180 and two scores the week before. This much is certain: It’s been some time since they searched for answers, and the place to start is in the mirror.
“It’s definitely disbelief,” Tom Brady (two costly second-half interceptions) said following his first loss as the unopposed leader of the offense and first error-prone outing since throwing four second-half picks in a loss at Denver last season. “I don’t think it was to the point where you feel like you can go out and not lose. They’re professional football players, a 3-0 team playing at home, a sold-out stadium.”
“It’s been a while,” said Lawyer Milloy, cocaptain of a proud defense that has been humbled two straight weeks. “But this team, we’re not going to panic. We know we’re not playing up to our capabilities. We’ve got to get this corrected, and we’ve got to get this corrected in a hurry.”
The “this” Milloy referred to is the defense’s sudden inability to stop the run. Tomlinson averaged 8 yards per carry after Holmes averaged 6 the week before. It is the way he averaged those 8 yards that will torment the Patriots throughout the week leading up to Sunday’s game with Ricky Williams and AFC East rival Miami. Tomlinson darted and juked between the tackles for 9-, 10-, and 11-yard gains. He and his blockers left several Patriots picking themselves up off the ground after touchdown runs of 37 and 58 yards. He left what was supposed to be a fundamentally sound team talking about getting back to basics.
“The missed tackles are killing us,” defensive tackle Steve Martin said. “They’re killing us. We’ve got guys in the holes, in position to make plays, and [they] miss tackles. That’s what I saw. The thing that’s encouraging about it is that it’s easily fixed. But we have to fix it. We have to have a sense of urgency about it. If we don’t fix it, it’s going to continue to be a problem.”
It wasn’t so much of a problem yesterday, though, that it prevented them from having a chance to come away with another wake-up call rather than a rude awakening. Oh, they had their chances to win. Start with the final possession. Trailing, 21-14, Brady and the offense had 1:51 and one timeout with which to cover 96 yards - not impossible when you consider their successful track record in such situations. But the drive began to short-circuit when, on third and 3 from New England’s 35, J.R. Redmond was tackled inbounds short of the first down. Brady ran for it on fourth down, and was forced to call the team’s final timeout.
Four plays, three incompletions, and a holding penalty later, Kevin Faulk caught a pass over the middle and tried to lateral back to David Patten. Alex Molden recovered the fumble and Drew Brees took a knee. And with that, the cannons started blaring, coach Marty Schottenheimer pumped his fists and waved his arms as he left the field, while Chargers chairman of the board Alex Spanos rushed to make a rare appearance in his team’s locker room to thank the players for the perfect 79th birthday gift.
“We just didn’t do enough out there in any phase of the game to be able to win,” said Bill Belichick, denied a perfect ending to the month he targeted during training camp. “We weren’t able to finish drives off and get the ball in the end zone even though we moved it. Fourteen points is not enough. We didn’t play well enough on defense really at any point in the game. I’m disappointed that we couldn’t score more points and didn’t play better on defense.”
One of Belichick’s defenders, Mike Vrabel, unexpectedly made an offensive contribution, lining up as a tight end on third and goal from the 1 and catching a touchdown pass from Brady that made it 14-7 Patriots. San Diego then went three and out, and New England drove from its 36 to San Diego’s 23, only to see the drive stall and a chance at a potential 10-point lead vanish when Vinatieri missed a field goal for the first time in nine attempts this season and 15 dating back to last year.
San Diego capitalized with a nine-play, 69-yard drive that Tomlinson capped with a 37-yard tying touchdown run. Tomlinson took a toss to the right, cut back, found a seam, and dashed past Victor Green and Otis Smith on his way to the end zone.
The Patriots couldn’t do anything with their final possession of the half, and the Chargers were content to take a knee and go into the locker room tied at 14.
Who knew the deciding score between teams that together gained 396 yards in the first half would come on the third play of the second half? Tomlinson started the third quarter with a 9-yard run. He followed that with a 58-yard touchdown run on which he started left, cut back, and sprinted to pay dirt (a fitting phrase considering the infield dirt from Padres games covers nearly half the field). Tomlinson got superb downfield blocking from Tim Dwight on Smith and Curtis Conway on Tebucky Jones.
Tomlinson is the second running back to run for 200 yards against the Patriots. The other: a fellow by the name of O.J. Simpson.
“All it takes is one team to be successful [running],” Milloy said. “Everybody has tape around the league. Until we stop it, why not run it?”
The question for the Patriots remains, why can’t they run it, as they managed 87 yards on 23 carries. Antowain Smith led the way with 78 yards on 16 tries (a healthy 4.9-yard average), but when he was asked to gain 10 and a first down at the Chargers 29 with 5:21 left, Junior Seau said, “Why don’t you give me 2 instead,” and knocked him back to the 41, forcing a Ken Walter punt and allowing the Chargers’ offense to run about 1:50 off the clock.
On the previous possession the Patriots elected to go for it on fourth and 1 but at the Charger 39 but Marc Edwards was stopped by rookie linebacker Ben Leber.
While Smith and Co. struggled to run through the league’s No. 1 defense, Brady had little trouble throwing over it despite the absence of Troy Brown. Brady, a native of San Mateo, Calif., completed 36 of 53 passes for 353 yards and two touchdowns, including a 5-yard score to Christian Fauria for a 7-0 lead. The Chargers tied it with 4:25 left on a 52-yard TD pass from Brees to Curtis Conway, who beat Smith on a go route down the left sideline, with Green late coming over to help. Brees played a Brady game (circa 2001), completing 10 of 18 passes for 104 with the touchdown and no interceptions.
“When it’s working, why stop doing it,” Brees said of Schottenheimer’s approach to offense. “LT did a heck of a job carrying us on his shoulders. We threw when we needed to.”
New England’s passing game functioned well despite the absence of Troy Brown. Rookie Deion Branch caught 13 passes for 128 yards. But few are talking about those numbers today. Brady’s biggest throws were to Ryan McNeil at the Chargers 12 on New England’s first possession of the third quarter and to Donnie Edwards at San Diego’s 7 on the following drive. McNeil and Edwards are Chargers.
“It’s one of those things where you make the throw and everybody says `Great throw,’ and you throw the pick and everybody says, `What are you thinking?’ I came off the field saying, `What was I thinking?’ “
“We have a championship schedule, so there’s no real room for error. Week in and week out, it’s going to be a bigger task. And the more we expose ourselves, the harder it’s going to get for us. So we need to get whatever we’re doing wrong right now corrected, and do it in a hurry.”