CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
Jim Davis/Globe Staff
FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots are enjoying a luxury that is unavailable to the rest of the NFL. They’re still finding themselves as a team while simultaneously finding a way to win games.
Coach Bill Belichick’s pigskin pupils have stopped beating themselves, and in the current NFL, that and Tom Brady is enough to win 75 percent of your games.
The self-immolation and self-flagellation that plagued them the first four weeks of the season is once again the sole province of Patriot opponents. Since then they’ve restored order and their AFC eminence with a four-game winning streak. They head into their bye week with a 6-2 record. But it still feels like something is amiss or missing.
It figured that the Patriots would follow their best performance of the year, a 23-7 win over the Atlanta Falcons, with a lackluster one, registering an uninspired 21-13 victory Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, the bumbling unbidden house guests of America’s second-largest city.
“I don’t think this is the best Patriots team we’ve seen in the last decade,” declared Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. “I don’t think they would say this is the best team they’ve had. They’re still really good. They’ve beaten us about every time I’ve trotted out against them. They’re sitting there at 6-2 at the top. They’re going to be playing in January . . . But we were right there as a lot of teams have been this year against them, and we just didn’t find a way to get it done.”
Obviously, Rivers doesn’t know the Patriots well. They would swallow cyanide before comparing the current team to past teams. But Rivers was more accurate in his commentary than he was on his wayward final attempt of the game with a second left from the Patriots’ 23, a baffling throw that failed to reach the end zone and was easily intercepted at the 1 — the coup de grace of the Chargers’ parade of miscues.
Gillette Stadium is like the NFL’s Upside Down from the supernatural thriller “Stranger Things” on Netflix. It’s a haunting, threatening alternate dimension that is difficult to escape. It strikes so much fear into the hearts of those who venture there that they become frozen in foreboding and panic and can’t get out — of that place or their own way.
Home or away, the Patriots have benefitted from the carelessness and cluelessness of their opponents recently. Tampa Bay missed three goals and dropped a touchdown pass. The New York Jets fumbled away a touchdown on a controversial ruling. The Falcons foolhardily went for it on fourth down and then played football in the fetal position, emotionally scarred by Super Bowl LI.
The issue for the Patriots is that you can play that game and win a dozen or more games. But when you get into the NFL’s Final Four, teams are less likely to be coconspirators in their own downfall. You can’t rely on the other guys being overwhelmed by your coach, quarterback, and mystique.
The Chargers came in as winners of three straight and as the recipients of infinite praise from Belichick. But they predictably wilted after taking a 7-0 lead.
They were complicit in their own demise, struggling to substitute on defense, using stale Wildcat rushing plays on third and 2, lining up in defensive formations best left on the back of a napkin, committing costly penalties, and, worst of all, committing special teams malpractice to gift the Patriots bonus yards and points.
In the second quarter, Travis Benjamin muffed a well-placed 54-yard directional punt from Ryan Allen. Benjamin picked it up and tried to run laterally across his own goal line, a cardinal sin. He was tackled in the end zone for a safety with 9:08 left in the first half, handing the Patriots a 9-7 lead. The Patriots took the ensuing free kick and got a 25-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski.
The Patriots’ only touchdown, a 2-yard toss from Brady (32 of 47 for 333 yards) to Rob Gronkowski, was aided by a too-many-men-on-the-field penalty on third and 4 from the LA 34. The Chargers defenders looked like they were training for the 4 x 100-meter relay all day, as they raced to and from the sideline.
No matter where they call home the Bolts still play like Dolts sometimes. They featured unforced errors and unsound strategy. The Chargers only let Rivers (17 of 30 for 212 yards with a touchdown and an interception) throw the ball five times in the first half against the worst-rated pass defense in the league.
In the third quarter, the Chargers had a 42-yard touchdown pass to Tyrell Williams wiped out by an illegal touching penalty; Williams simply lost track of his surroundings and stepped out of bounds unforced on his route before coming back in to leap over Johnson Bademosi.
On the same drive, Rivers dropped the ball while rolling out to buy time, a 20-yard loss that knocked the Chargers out of field goal range. Later in the quarter, the Chargers had another ghost touchdown — a 41-yarder to Benjamin — negated by an offensive pass interference call.
The Patriots feast on the opposition’s bungling. Sunday it was enough to overshadow the fact that the Patriots’ offense, which has gone four straight games without scoring 25 or more points, was 1 for 4 in the red zone, the defense allowed 7.5 yards per rush and a Chargers franchise-record-tying 87-yard touchdown run to Melvin Gordon, and Gostkowski missed a pair of field goals.
“We knew that they capitalize on people’s mistakes,” said Gordon, who finished with 132 yards on 14 carries. “That’s just how they’re built. We made mistakes, and they capitalized like we knew they would, and they came out on top.”
Incredibly, the Patriots refused to accept the Chargers’ charity and put them out of their misery, letting LA hang around until the very end.
“I definitely feel like we could have made this easier on ourselves,” said Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola. “We can play better. We haven’t played our best football yet. We’re happy we won and look forward to preparing for what’s next.”
Luckily, LA simply wouldn’t take no or a win for an answer.
The Chargers suffered from self-inflicted wounds through the final play, an interception by Jonathan Jones. It was a fitting ending for the Chargers — and a game that had no juice.
Winning a championship without two of their most indispensable players, wide receiver Julian Edelman and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, isn’t going to be easy for the Patriots. But after eight games their most difficult obstacle remains themselves.
They have to figure out how to tap their best football like syrup finally flowing from a stubborn maple tree.
“Hopefully, our best games are still ahead of us,” said Brady.
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