Monday, January 21, 2008

Patriots 21, Chargers 12 (1/20/2008)

The San Diego Chargers whimpered into Foxboro yesterday, so scared of the cold that they stayed in the locker room rather than take their pre-game introductions. And they slinked out of Foxboro with a 21-12 loss to the only team in NFL history to go 18-0. The win puts the Patriots where they’ve been pointing to for 365 days: back in the Super Bowl after failing to win last year’s AFC Championship. It also puts them one win from history, as a victory in Super Bowl XXLII will cement their status as one of the greatest teams ever to play football.

The checklist for a San Diego win was simple: windy conditions to slow the passing game (check); pressure Tom Brady (check); win the turnover battle (check); dominate with the running game (no check); don’t get beaten by big plays (check); make big plays on special teams (semi-check); and keep it close in the second half (check). But five-and-a-half checkmarks out of seven wasn’t good enough against a team of gut-check players, and the Patriots ended up with a comfortable win over a depleted Chargers squad.

The Patriots defense was the real star of the game. They limited the Chargers to 25% on third-down conversions, and made them settle for field goals on three trips inside the Patriots ten yard-line. And all three times, it was a different player who stepped up to stop the drive: a broken up pass by Tedy Bruschi, a tackle short of a first down by Ellis Hobbs, and a tackle for a loss by Junior Seau. Big plays by big-time players in critical situations – exactly what the Patriots do, play after play and game after game, while other teams hope they can do it often enough to derail the Pats.

The secondary came up huge in this one, with great play by Ellis Hobbs (8 tackles, 1 pass defended, and an interception), Asante Samuel (3, 2, and 1 beautiful, “I want it more” interception), and Rodney Harrison (7 tackles, and a huge quarterback hit to force fourth-down late in the game). Some will criticize them for allowing a few easy passes, but their job is to stop the opposition from scoring quickly and getting off the field on third-down. And to those ends, they allowed no touchdowns and Chargers QB Philip Rivers was 4-10 for 47 yards and 1 sack on third down, with only 2 conversions all day.

The linebackers played very well, too. Bruschi had eight tackles, and Seau had that aforementioned stop and a sack and two quarterback hits to boot. Mike Vrabel was limited most of the game, but his pressure on Rivers forced an errant throw on Hobbs’ pick. And the team of linebackers did a great job setting the edge to stop outside runs. They stuffed the run when they needed to, and stopped the short passing game that you knew San Diego would use in windy conditions.

On the defensive line, Vince Wilfork proved his Pro Bowl-worthiness in this game. He was up against one of the better centers in the league, and Wilfork consistently got penetration to redirect or tackle runners. Jarvis Green also did a good job in semi-relief on the right side, and Richard Seymour had a good game, also. The pressure on Rivers was no up to par, and none of the linemen got sacks. But they held up against the run while allowing extra defenders to drop into coverage, and it showed with Rivers’ 46.1 quarterback rating.

As for the offense, three cheers for the running backs! Kevin Faulk was the leading receiver, with 8 catches for 82 yards and two big-time, very difficult catches for important third-down conversions on the final, game-icing drive. Laurence Maroney “pitched in” with 122 yards on 25 carries that were a nice mix of juking cutbacks, outside beauties, and bone-crunching plow-straight-aheads. Even oft-forgotten Heath Evans had two first-down conversions on two carries, and all three blocked very well in pass protection

As for the receivers, well, I have a few complaints. Wes Welker had two or three drops, Randy Moss had two drops, and Donte Stallworth didn’t do anything to break up Tom Brady’s first interception. Aside from that, all three did solid blocking duty in the running game, and made catches when they needed to be made. Of course, part of the problem was the pressure on Brady, who had 3 interceptions and his second-lowest quarterback rating of the year (66.4). But with all that, Brady completed 67% of his passes and threw for two touchdowns. But suffice it to say that San Diego treats him as roughly as Miami does every year, and he’s probably glad to have the Chargers game in the rear-view mirror.

There was nothing remarkable to mention about special teams, except that the San Diego kicker appears to have a very weak leg but had four field goals under very difficult conditions. His kickoffs landed at the ten yard-line with the wind, and he had one land at the 30 yard-line into the wind – all of which gave the Patriots a short field too often.

So where does that leave us? Waiting 13 more days for the Super Bowl, I suppose. They appear to be healthy heading into the final “big game” of the season, and they beat the Giants in New York on the last weekend of the year. But that game was close (38-35), so don’t expect a walk-over. I’ll send a preview sometime next week, and might send along a little something prior to that – just to tide you over :)

Statistical Oddity of the Week (in three parts): It’s not often that a quarterback has more interceptions (3) than he had incompletions (2) the previous week. And I’d guess that you will never see a quarterback have 5.5-times as many incomplete passes one week (11) than he had the previous week (2). Bonus Oddity: Laurence Maroney had exactly the same number of yards (122) in each of the Patriots playoff wins this year.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “What was Norv Turner was thinking? Maybe he was saving that special play to go for it on fourth down in the Pro Bowl, I don’t know.”

Keep the faith,

- Scott



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