Early last week, the quote was delivered off-handedly by Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington — three simple sentences that, in many ways, have come to define the 2010 Patriots.
“Mental toughness hasn’t particularly been our strong suit in recent games,” explained the defensive back the day after the win over the Ravens. “But I think this team is trying to separate ourselves from last year’s team. Different players, trying to have a different mentality.”
Fast-forward to Sunday and the Chargers. The Patriots weren’t at their best, but they still found a way to capture a game that mentally tough teams win, a perfectly imperfect outing that ended with a 23-20 decision in New England’s favor (click here for the complete recap). In their continuing attempt to distinguish themselves, the 2010 Patriots are starting to make people believe that they resemble the 2009 edition in name only.
One of the reasons is that they can play poorly for stretches and still win. A look at the stat sheet reveals that New England certainly didn’t play well for long periods of Sunday’s game: San Diego scored 17 points in the fourth quarter. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had his second straight game with a sub-100 passer rating and was sacked four times. The New England offense managed just 179 yards of offense, including a season-low 51 rushing yards.
But as is the case with good teams, even when they’re not at their best, the Patriots manage to find a way.
“It’s good to win a game when you don’t play great,” Brady said. “You've got to win these games when you get the opportunity.”
As Arrington hinted, wins like the one the Patriots posted on Sunday have allowed them to gain some separation from last year’s team. It was a sloppy game, but New England was able to gut out a win on the road — 3,000 miles from home, in a difficult environment. The feeling is that whether through an inopportune turnover, a bad bounce or a simple inability to respond when things got tough, the 2009 Patriots would have almost certainly found a way to lose Sunday’s game.
This year? Different players, trying to have a different mentality.
“We’re still working at it,” Brady said. “We’re not in playoff form or anything like that, but we’re 5-1, and we played some pretty tough teams, tough defenses and tough offenses, and we’re just trying to improve. Just keep fighting, I think that’s one thing we’ve shown, we’re going to keep fighting till the end.”
Here are nine other things we learned on Sunday:
AN ENTIRE REGION IS CAPABLE OF UNDERGOING DÉJÀ VU AT THE SAME TIME
With the Patriots holding a 23-20 lead with two minutes left, they were facing a fourth-and-one at their own 49-yard line. Belichick and New England decided to go for it, trying to shut the door on the Chargers. In truth, the situation held a lot of similarities between Sunday’s game and last year’s contest against the Colts in Indianapolis when they went for it on fourth and … well, you probably know the rest of that story.
We’re not going to rehash the statistical pros and cons of going for it in that situation. (For that, check out this story we did last year in the wake of the decision in Indianapolis.) What is important to remember from this season is that they handed the ball to Green-Ellis, who was absolutely blown up by San Diego’s Antwan Applewhite short of the marker. The Chargers took over on downs, setting the stage for Brown’s dramatic miss that essentially ended the game.
“I thought if we made it, we could end the game. They made a good play. Give them credit,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
As he did last season in the wake of the decision to go for it against the Colts, Brady left no doubt about where he stood.
“If we get the first down, the game’s pretty much over,” shrugged the quarterback. “You punt it back to them, and they have three timeouts with two minutes left, they only got to go 60 yards, and if you get the yard, it’s going to be tough for them to win the game. They’d have to use all their timeouts and you got a minute left in the game.”
He did, however, note the fact that it never should have come down to that, saying the execution on second and third down led to the failure on fourth down.
“We tried it, didn’t execute it very well,” he said. “We didn’t execute a lot of things very well. It never should have come down to a fourth-and-1. It was second-and-1, and we lost a yard there, then third-and-1, we didn't gain any yards there. We have to do a better job when it counts.”
THE CHARGERS DID ALL THEY COULD TO GIVE THIS GAME TO THE PATRIOTS EARLY
The stat sheet says the Patriots finished this one with four first-half takeaways, but in truth, it was two takeaways and two unforced errors committed by the Chargers that would come back to haunt San Diego down the stretch. Sandwiched in between a sensational interception by Devin McCourty and a forced fumble by Dane Fletcher (which was recovered by Jerod Mayo), the Chargers flat-out gave the ball to New England twice.
First, San Diego receiver Richard Goodman made a classic rookie mistake, falling to the ground after his first NFL catch and leaving the ball there. He celebrated, and safety James Sanders came in and scooped up the ball.
“We were in a rhythm, playing fast. So after making that catch, I was just trying to get back to the huddle and get lined up and play fast,” Goodman told reporters, adding he thought a Patriots player had touched him down. “I take the blame. Down or not down, I need to give the ball to the referee.”
The Patriots couldn’t cash that one in, but midway through the second quarter, the Patriots took advantage when a pass was ruled a fumble and New England linebacker Rob Ninkovich picked up the ball and took it all the way down to the San Diego eight-yard line. The Patriots turned that into a 40-yard field goal.
On both occasions, the Chargers gave up on the ball thinking the play was dead. Both Sanders and Ninkovich (who went 63 yards) kept playing, never assuming that the play was dead until it was actually done. As a result, they picked up key turnovers — in the end, New England turned the four turnovers into 10 points.
“You have to play them out. Whistles do not mean anything. Playing to whistle doesn't mean anything anymore,” Belichick said. “When the ball is loose, you've got to play it out. We teach our guys to do that, play it out and ask questions later and forget about the whistle.”
AS EXPECTED, SPECIAL TEAMS WAS A DIFFERENCE-MAKER FOR THE PATRIOTS
The Patriots’ special teams unit wasn’t great: New England allowed San Diego to successfully execute a late onsides kick, while long snapper Jake Ingram was very shaky early, bouncing a pair of snaps and drawing a holding penalty while the Patriots as a group committed four special teams penalties. As a collective, it wasn’t one of their better performances, especially when stacked against the standout effort of the previous two games.
But it was certainly better than San Diego, and in particular, new kicker Kris Brown. Brown, who was signed off the street this week when starter Nate Kaeding went down with an injury, was 1-for-2 on onsides attempts, but also booted a kickoff out of bounds.
And then, of course, there was the missed field goal at the end. With 23 seconds left, Brown lined up to try a 45-yarder that would have forced overtime, but guard Louis Vasquez was whistled for a false start. Moved back five yards, Brown's attempt was long enough, but smacked off the right upright.
Brown said the penalty didn’t cause the miss.
“Absolutely not. I went out there, hit it, and it came off my foot pretty good. It just stayed down the hash mark and hit the upright,” Brown said.
The Patriots had their positive moments on special teams, and exploited many aspects of the advantage they enjoyed against the woeful Chargers special teams’ unit. While there were no electric returns from Julian Edelman (who had a 34-yard punt return) or Brandon Tate (who topped out with a 25-yard kick return of his own), both did more than their share to make sure the Patriots had excellent field position all afternoon — New England had an average starting field position of its’ own 44-yard line.
In addition, Stephen Gostkowski continues to rebound after a rough start. He was perfect on all three field goal attempts on Sunday, delivering from 40, 35 and 35 yards and making it nine straight field goals, and he added a touchback for good measure.
LOGAN MANKINS’ BARGAINING POWER INCREASED ON SUNDAY
Facing the league’s highest-rated pass defense on Sunday — and with some of the most impressive pass-protection numbers (eight sacks allowed in five games) in the league — the Patriots’ offensive line had its worst day of the season, yielding four sacks against the Chargers.
San Diego got after Brady three times in the first half, hauling him down on back-to-back plays with New England threatening in the red zone when Shaun Phillips and Antwan Barnes doing the damage. On a back-to-back sequence in the first half, Phillips got to him first for a five-yard sack, then on the next play, Barnes picked up an 11-yard sack, pushing the Patriots out of the red zone and forcing them to settle for a 40-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski.
Barnes got him (and beat left tackle Matt Light for the second time in the half) for an eight-yarder before the end of the half. (For good measure, Light had illegal-use-of-hands penalty tacked on to the play.) Former Boston College product Antonio Garay had a seven-yard sack in the third quarter to finish things off for the San Diego pass rush.
“We never deviated from the game plan, and we were able to go out there and execute,” Phillips told reporters after the game. “We cause some disruption, but [Brady is] a talented player and they still got the win. That's all that matters.”
Much of the pressure appeared to come from the left side at the expense of Light and left guard Dan Connolly, who was replaced relatively early on by backup interior lineman Ryan Wendell. Connolly has performed well in place of Mankins over the first six games of the season, but with the deadline for Mankins to report starting to loom larger and this game fresh in the minds of many, expect lots of talk this week about the possibility of Mankins stepping back into the lineup sooner rather than later.
THE PATRIOTS’ FRONT SEVEN WAS ABLE TO CAUSE SOME TROUBLE FOR THE CHARGERS AND PHILIP RIVERS
The sight of an opposing quarterback under duress is a new one for Patriots’ fans, but they were able to see it on several occasions on Sunday. For the first time since the start of the 2009 season — other than the three games against the Bills in that time — the Patriots were able to get good, consistent pressure on an opposing quarterback.
New England had just two sacks (one from rookie Brandon Deaderick and another from Mike Wright), but they had Rivers on the run on several occasions throughout the day. Jermaine Cunningham had his second straight stellar outing, coming away with three tackles and flushing Rivers from the pocket on several occasions. Wright also got after him, as well as Shawn Crable.
In addition, the Patriots were able to get another commanding performance in the middle from inside linebacker Jerod Mayo. On the heels of a 19-tackle effort last week against the Ravens, Mayo again reached double digits in tackles, this time finishing with eleven. Mayo became the first Patriots player to go three consecutive games with 10-plus tackles since Tedy Bruschi went three straight games with 10-plus tackles in 2006. (Mayo had 17 at Miami on Oct. 4 and 19 vs. Baltimore on Oct. 17.)
Overall, Mayo is on a staggering pace — he has 76 total tackles in 2010 and is on pace for a career-high 203 total tackles, which would be the highest in franchise history since linebacker Steve Nelson had 207 tackles in 1984.
THE PATRIOTS RUNNING GAME ISN’T ALWAYS GOING TO HIT THAT MAGIC FOUR YARDS PER CARRY MARK.
The Patriots were unable to get anything going on the ground — New England finished with a season-low 51 rushing yards on the day. Danny Woodhead (eight carries) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (11 carries) had 24 yards each, while Sammy Morris had two yards and Tom Brady added a measly one yard each.
While the Patriots’ running backs didn’t reinvent the position through the five previous games, they were able to do their part through four of the five games, managing at least 3.7 yards per carry in each game (other than the loss to the Jets) and 4.4 yards per carry as a whole on the season. On Sunday, they averaged just 2.3 yards per carry, and couldn’t finish with a run of more than nine yards.
That inability to move the chains lasted all day, but the worst moment of the game for the backs came in a fourth-and-one situation late in the fourth quarter when Green-Ellis was unable to get a single yard, was swallowed up by Applewhite and the ball was turned over on downs to the Chargers.
For what it’s worth, the Chargers were unable to get any sort of running game on track — rookie Ryan Mathews had 15 yards, and San Diego had just 38 rushing yards on the day.
DESPITE DOING A LOT OF GOOD THINGS, THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE ALMOST GAVE THIS ONE AWAY
On the heels of excellent back-to-back performances in the previous two games, New England really did a good job bottling up the San Diego passing game for most of the afternoon, holding the league’s top-rated offense in the league to just three points through the first three quarters. The Chargers had three three-and-outs in the first half, and only made one trip inside the Patriots’ red zone until there were just under two minutes left in the third quarter.
All that changed in the fourth quarter, when the Chargers were able to put up 17 points and very nearly steal the game away from New England. It started with a 28-yard field goal from Brown before they scored their two touchdowns of the day — a four-yard touchdown pass from Rivers to Antonio Gates (which put the capper on an impressive 11-play, 67-yard drive that made it 23-13 with 7:21 left) and a one-yard plunge from Mike Tolbert that cut the lead to three with 4:01 remaining.
While the Chargers scored on three of their four possessions in the second half — putting together three drives of at least nine plays — the Patriots’ defense was just good enough late. They held San Diego on a key third down (on a third-and-10, Gates caught an eight-yard pass shy of the sticks), forcing Browns attempt at a game-tying field goal.
“Sometimes they bail us out, and sometimes we have to bail them out. That's the beauty of being a team,” James Sanders told reporters after the game. “We have each other's back no matter what the circumstance is.”
PHILIP RIVERS PROBABLY DESERVED BETTER
The San Diego quarterback finished 34-for-50 for 336 yards, including one touchdown and one interception, impressive yards when you consider that he only had 123 of those yards in the first half and was in a situation for much of the second half where the New England defense was working with a 17-point lead and the whole world knew Rivers had to throw the ball if the Chargers were going to get back into the game.
But a receiving corps that failed to do him any favors betrayed the quarterback: Goodman’s catch ended with a case of premature jocularity, giving the ball back to the Patriots. (For what it’s worth, Goodman later redeemed himself by recovering an onside kick with 7:21 remaining in the fourth quarter.) Kris Wilson coughed up a first-half reception. Crayton had a drop, as did Buster Davis.
One guy who shouldn’t apologize for his performance was Gates, who did not practice all week because of a toe injury. The big tight end confessed after the game that he was more of a decoy than anything, but still ended up with four catches for 50 yards and a touchdown.
“I tried to do what I can, and obviously when you are playing a really good team, it is hard not to be 100 percent and play well. I think for a minute they got lost in coverage, and I was able to make some plays,” Gates told reporters.
“It wasn’t 100 percent,” he added. “I wasn’t myself. But, you know, some times you go out to set an example. You go out and try to do whatever you can. It might not take 100 yards to win a football game. It might just take you being out there, and that is what I was trying to implement today.”
AFTER A WEEK OF HYPE, BRANDON MERIWEATHER WAS ABLE TO FOCUS ON THE FIELD SUNDAY
There appeared to be no residual effects of what happened to Meriweather last week against the Ravens. The Miami product had five tackles on the afternoon, including a fundamentally sound, big hit early on San Diego’s Patrick Crayton, knocking him sideways and saluting the New England sideline when the play was done.
Meriweather was hit with a $50,000 fine last week for what league officials said was a flagrant violation of “player safety rules” for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Baltimore tight end Todd Heap. Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, who grew close to Meriweather when the two played together in New England, said during halftime of Sunday night’s Packers-Vikings that he noticed a different Meriweather during Sunday’s game against San Diego.
“I talked to Brandon, and he was very apologetic this week about his hit on Todd Heap,” Harrison said. “But the one thing I looked at when he played today, the guy listened, and most young players don’t listen. He had the maturity. I’m very proud of this kid. He’s still very physical. He came, he lowered his aim and he made a good aggressive play.”