Patriots, a bit off against feisty Chargers, now hit bye week
FOXBOROUGH — Hello, bye.
The Patriots head into their midseason respite with good feelings after stretching their winning streak to four games with a 21-13 decision over a pesky Los Angeles Chargers team Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Like many of New England’s games this season, victory wasn’t secured until the final play. It didn’t feel like it was going to be that way. In fact, it felt as though a blowout was in the making as the Patriots piled up 414 yards of offense while marching up and down the field — until they hit the red zone.
Normally a team that knows how to close the deal when it gets to that coveted area, Tom Brady’s crew only cashed in on 1 of 4 trips against the Chargers.
“We didn’t finish [those drives] off,’’ said Brady. “We’re trying. It’s just the execution is coming up a little short in critical times.’’
After spotting the Chargers, who arrived in town on a three-game win streak of their own, a 7-0 lead on Melvin Gordon’s 87-yard touchdown run, the Patriots’ defense clamped down on Philip Rivers and Co. until the final minutes.
Brady pulled the Patriots even on the ensuing possession, hitting a wide-open Rob Gronkowski with a 2-yard pass. The Chargers clearly were expecting a run as New England had its heavy package (three tight ends and a fullback) on the field.
Gronkowski said he wasn’t surprised when he found himself slipping across the end zone uncovered.
“There’s a little confusion sometimes,’’ he said. “Half of the time we run the play in practice I’m wide open and the other half I’m covered by like two guys.’’
Gronkowski’s TD was the first of 21 straight points the Patriots scored, and the next 2 came on the one of the most bizarre plays you’ll ever see.
Travis Benjamin, fresh off his special teams player of the week award, muffed a punt return, collected it, ran backward 8 yards, and was tackled in the end zone for a safety and a 9-7 lead.
“It was huge momentum swing,’’ said Matthew Slater.
The Patriots took the ensuing free kick and tacked on 3 more points courtesy of the first of Stephen Gostkowski’s four field goals — he also missed a pair — this one a 25-yarder.
Gostkowski added another with 20 seconds left in the half and the Patriots carried a 15-7 lead into intermission.
It still felt like a blowout was in the offing, but New England managed only two more Gostkowski field goals over the final 30 minutes.
The Chargers kept hanging around and cut the deficit to 18-13 on Rivers’s 24-yard pass to Benjamin.
After Gostkowski’s final 3-pointer, Rivers quickly drove the Chargers to the New England 23, but his final pass was picked off by Jonathan Jones.
Though the season is only half in the books, Bill Belichick lauded the work his team has done as it heads into a break that comes at a perfect time.
“We’ve been going now for six weeks of preseason and eight regular-season games. We’ve been playing a lot of football,’’ said the coach. “Every week it’s been a grind . . . Those guys are working hard and it’s paying off, but they’re working hard. They’re grinding it.’’
Here are some other observations as the Patriots improved to 6-2 and are next in action in two weeks in Denver.
■ Brady’s pocket was protected — for the most part.
The Patriots did a solid job neutralizing San Diego’s vaunted pass rush (three sacks, 16 yards). The blocking was sound and Brady didn’t dilly-dally. He moved well and got rid of the ball quickly.
“They definitely have some good rushers and good players, but we just came out with the attitude that we have to execute and do our job,’’ said LaAdrian Waddle, who filled in admirably after starting right tackle Marcus Cannon went down with an ankle injury. “If we play with good technique and play the way we should play, we could handle those guys.’’
■ The running backs were the safety valves.
Brady again relied on his backs to get open quickly — which also helped mitigate Joey Bosa (one sack) and Melvin Ingram (zero).
Rex Burkhead had a career-high seven catches for 68 yards, James White had five grabs for 85 yards, and Dion Lewis had a pair of snags for 10 yards.
“Our guys definitely made a lot of plays when given the opportunity,’’ said Lewis.
■ The defense bounced back after Gordon’s big run and played well in its first test since Dont’a Hightower was lost for the season.
Take Gordon’s run away and the Chargers gained just 70 yards on 20 carries, and Rivers finished just 17 of 30 for 212 yards.
“We just wanted to come out here and play for [Hightower], you know, it’s always tough when you have a season-ending injury,’’ said Kyle Van Noy, who had a team-high six tackles. “And guys like Harvey Langi, we just wanted to show our support and let them know we’re holding it down for them until they get back. It was a group effort on defense and we played well.’’
■ The special teams continue to shine.
In addition to the safety, the coverage units were exceptional, Danny Amendola was flawless on punt returns (four, 26 yards), and Lewis chipped in with a 71-yard kickoff return.
“The special teams’ performance was huge,’’ said Slater, the unit’s captain. “I’m really proud of how our guys played today.’’