SAN DIEGO – Darrelle Revis wore a big smile as he skipped around the Patriots sideline as the final seconds ticked down Sunday night. He turned toward the pro-Patriots crowd behind his bench, and encouraged them with hand gestures to bring him the love.
Revis, and the rest of his defensive teammates, deserved every bit of glory.
The Patriots’ defense brought the thunder, leading the team to a 23-14 victory over the Chargers on a night when Tom Brady and the offense struggled to hold up their end of the bargain.
They pounded the Chargers into submission, stifling Philip Rivers and leaving his teammates battered and their egos bruised.
The Patriots allowed a season-low 216 yards and only 7 points – the other 7 came when Darrell Stuckey returned a Brandon LaFell fumble for a touchdown. In the second half, they allowed just 100 yards and didn’t give up a point. They held Rivers to just 189 yards passing and sacked him four times. They were much better on third down this week, holding the Chargers to 4 for 13 (1 for 7 in the second half). They intercepted Rivers once, and should have had a pick-six if not for a highly questionable penalty on Brandon Browner for hitting a defenseless receiver.
With the victory the Patriots’ defense passed several major tests — mainly, that it can carry the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
To go 3,000 miles on the road and shut down the league’s No. 7-ranked passing attack, led by an annual Pro Bowler in Rivers, was one of the more impressive feats by the Patriots all season, on either side of the ball. Brady doesn’t have to carry the team on his back anymore. Now, finally, the Patriots have a defense that can carry Brady.
And they proved their depth Sunday night. Tavon Wilson got a ton of run at safety one week after playing just one snap against the Packers, and made the game’s final tackle, popping Antonio Gates short of the first-down marker on fourth down. Duron Harmon got a lot of action, too, replacing Patrick Chung on most passing downs despite playing just five snaps last week. Sealver Siliga, playing in his first game since breaking a bone in his foot in Week 3, contributed half a sack and clogged up the middle.
That’s what you need to make a deep playoff run and play into February — unheralded guys stepping up after several weeks on ice, and making big plays.
The game plan was fascinating, in that it was only the second time all year that Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia called a heavy dose of blitzes. Blitz stats weren’t available immediately after the game, but it was obvious that they made a concerted effort to attack Rivers with extra pressure.
One misperception about Belichick, probably because of his association with Lawrence Taylor, is that he’s a mad blitzer who likes to bring the heat against opposing quarterbacks. This year, though, Belichick has mostly called off the dogs. Through the first 12 games, he only blitzed on 20.5 percent of snaps, as he has preferred to drop seven into coverage, keep the quarterbacks contained, and let Revis and Browner lock down the receivers. Last week against Green Bay, it was only four blitzes on 43 passing plays. Aaron Rodgers literally had 11 seconds to throw on one play.
Sunday night, though, Belichick went right after Rivers.
Some of that was to manufacture a pass rush without Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower in the lineup. But a lot of it was to neutralize Rivers and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. Rivers can’t scramble and avoid pass rushers like Rodgers or Andrew Luck can. And the Patriots took advantage.
Jamie Collins was a Tasmanian devil blitzing up the middle, and finished with two huge sacks, including one on third and 4 early in the game when the Chargers looked like they might start moving the ball. Devin McCourty, Harmon, and Kyle Arrington came off the edge. Rob Ninkovich got a sack after screaming in untouched. Akeem Ayers was in Rivers’s face all night. Chris Jones pushed the pocket and collected half a sack.
And the star-studded secondary did the rest. Keenan Allen got a one-way ticket to Revis Island, and couldn’t get off. After compiling 17 catches for 225 yards and three touchdowns in the previous two games, Allen finished with two catches for 3 yards. He wasn’t even targeted in the first half, as Rivers never bothered looking his way.
Browner didn’t have his best game, getting hit with two 15-yard penalties (one was legit, the other questionable) while also getting beaten badly on a double move by Malcom Floyd and giving up a 15-yard touchdown. Then again, Floyd finished with just three catches for 54 yards all night. Hard to complain about that.
And while Revis and Browner will continue to get the headlines, the entire secondary locked down the Chargers’ receivers. Chung, Wilson, and McCourty did an impressive job against Gates, who had just five catches for 34 yards. Arrington held Eddie Royal to two catches for 30 yards. Collins held running back Donald Brown to five catches for 49 yards. It was complementary football at its finest — the pass coverage giving the linemen enough time to get to the quarterback, and the pass rushers getting in Rivers’s face to help the secondary knock away the pass.
As the final seconds clicked down, Revis stayed on the sideline for an extra few seconds while his teammates convened at midfield for handshakes. He danced around the bench area with a huge smile on his face and one finger pointed in the air.
The Patriots still look like the No. 1 team in the AFC right now, with three games to go. And it’s the defense that is carrying them there.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.