SAN DIEGO - There is a big cultural gap between Northern California and Southern California. There was a canyon-size difference in the way the Patriots played in Northern California and in Southern California.
After restoring the faith with a 30-21 win over the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday, the Patriots fell flatter than tortilla last night in SoCal. The Patriots were trounced, 30-10, by the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium to snap a 12-game road winning streak and send them home at a loss against a team they’d beaten three straight times, including in the playoffs the last two seasons.
The theme of the night for the Patriots was playing from behind.
Matt Cassel and the offense struggled to generate points, failing four times from the 1 in the third quarter, and the Patriots cornerbacks were constantly behind the Chargers receivers, as Philip Rivers (18 of 27 for 306 yards and three touchdowns) completed three passes of more than 40 yards, including a 48-yard deep ball to Vincent Jackson on the first play from scrimmage.
The Patriots (3-2) came in determined to stop LaDainian Tomlinson, but it was receivers Jackson (five catches for 134 yards and a score) and Malcom Floyd (three catches for 75 yards and a touchdown) that proved their undoing. You would have thought it was the Patriots, not the Chargers, who entered last night’s game with the 32d-ranked pass defense in the NFL.
"We expected those type of big plays. We had a big task on our hands and we definitely failed," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs, who was flagged for a 32-yard pass interference penalty in the third quarter that set-up a 1-yard touchdown toss to Antonio Gates that made it 24-3.
"We had some good moments, but we just had too many low moments. We just couldn’t stop it."
But the lowest moment didn’t come on defense, it came via the offense, which was outgained 404 yards to 299.
After trailing, 17-3, at the half, the Patriots took the opening kickoff and seemed poised to do NBC a favor and keep people from flipping the channel on a game that lost some of its luster with both Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman out for the season with knee injuries, driving from their 22 to the San Diego 1.
Cassel picked up a third and 2 with a gutsy 3-yard scramble. On the next play, he hit Sammy Morris, who bowled over Antonio Cromartie, for a 28-yard gain to put the ball on the 1.
But with four shots from the 1, the Patriots failed to score, as on the final play, Cassel was stopped at the 2 as he tried to scramble into the end zone.
"We couldn’t get it in. We just couldn’t get it in down there," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "That would have certainly helped us and made it a one-score game, but we weren’t able to make the plays and they made them. That’s why they won tonight. They made more than we did and made them down there on the goal line."
San Diego (3-3) then resumed shredding the Patriots’ secondary. Rivers, throwing from his 6, hit Jackson for a 59-yard gain and two plays later, Hobbs was whistled for pass interference and Rivers threw his third touchdown pass.
On the first play of the ensuing possession, Cassel was picked off by Quentin Jammer, giving San Diego the ball at the 26. Nate Kaeding connected on a 35-yard field goal, one of three he made, to give the Chargers a 27-3 lead, and then it was lights out for the Patriots.
"We didn’t come out and we didn’t match their intensity early and they did a good job of playing from ahead," said Cassel, who finished 22 of 38 for 203 yards with an interception and was sacked four times.
All you needed to know about the first half was that the Patriots had more injuries (4) than points (3).
Jarvis Green was carted to the locker room with a right ankle injury on San Diego’s first drive. Hobbs left with a leg injury, but returned in the first quarter. Right tackle Nick Kaczur suffered a right ankle injury on the Patriots’ second possession and never came back. Safety Brandon Meriweather sustained a hip injury in the second quarter breaking up a deep ball but returned in the second half.
You knew it wasn’t the Patriots’ night when after the Chargers took a 3-0 lead the Patriots seemed poised to tie. But Stephen Gostkowski, who had been 10 for 10 to start the season, sailed a 48-yard kick wide left, snapping a streak of 17 straight regular-season makes.
Four plays later the Patriots found themselves trailing, 10-0, when Rivers picked on Deltha O’Neal, who gave up the deep ball to Jackson on the first play, again, finding Floyd for a 49-yard touchdown.
The Patriots, who ran the same number of plays as the Chargers (30) in the first half, but were outgained, 216-87, then got on the board with 7:13 left in the first half on a 47-yard field goal by Gostkowski.
On the play before the field goal, Randy Moss, who had three catches for 26 yards, appeared to have hauled in a ball inside the San Diego 5, but he bobbled it and it was knocked out of bounds.
The Patriots found themselves facing a 14-point deficit at intermission when Rivers hit Jackson with a 4-yard TD pass with 1:07 left in the half.
"They did a better job than we did," said Belichick. "I would say that about the players, the coaches, the whole works. The San Diego Chargers were better than the New England Patriots. That’s across the board."