By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots Insider Follow @tomecurran
FOXBORO - Let's clear this out of the way first. This is NOT a love letter to the Patriots defense. They've allowed 958 yards of offense to be rolled up on them, 762 through the air and 45 points. On Sunday, the Chargers went 10 for 12 on third down. Lotta work to do before all the new additions are making the expected impact. Long way to go before the secondary is something opposing quarterbacks don't have to wipe drool off their chins while watching game film. But there were signals Sunday that the ever-present question of, "Can this defense help Tom Brady when he has an off day?" may have a positive answer. They did it twice Sunday. The Chargers have a habit of gift-wrapping games for the Patriots. In the 2006 playoffs (Marlon McCree fumble after a pick), the 2007 AFC Championship (four red zone trips, seven points), the 2010 regular season (footballs left lying on the ground). Sunday was somewhat similar with four San Diego turnovers. But at least this time around they were forced errors. And the two biggies - one of which didn't count as a turnover - helped directly on the scoreboard. In the second quarter, the Chargers had first-and-goal at the Patriots 4, threatening to go up 14-10. On first down, Josh Barett knocked Ryan Mathews out of bounds after a gain of three. On second down, Mike Tolbert got stacked up for no gain by Kyle Love. On third down, Philip Rivers' scramble got jammed up by Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. And on fourth down, Mayo came up huge with a stop of the armadillo in shoulder pads, Tolbert. "Huge," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. "Spilled the ball outside, looked like we got a good push inside and the runner never really got turned up because he ended up going sideways and we were able to make the play. It was a huge play. It was a first-and-goal on the three or something like that; they were down there on all four plays, so it was huge for us."Asked about the play, Tolbert said, "It was just, things happened unexpectedly. I couldn't get around the corner."Hand the ball to Tom Brady, even with the goal line 99 yards away, and good things often occur. They did this time as well, as New England needed 10 plays before Brady stuck it in to Rob Gronkowski for a 10-yard score making it 17-7. The Patriots got it back for Brady again when Wilfork came up with a pick and long return just before the half that led to a 47-yard field goal as time expired before the break. "I think we stress complementary football and situational football, like the end of half situation that we got," said Brady. "Look, if the defense makes a huge stop like that, we have to do something with it. If they get us the ball, we have to do something with it. Honestly, there were times today that I thought we could have done a better job of that and we need to do a better job of that."The Patriots defense bailed out Brady and the offense again in the fourth. After San Diego trimmed the score to 20-14, New England was at midfield and driving with its no-huddle offense. But Brady made a quick decision at the line on third-and-4 thinking he could steal a first down with a quick throw to Wes Welker. Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips read the play and tipped the pass. Incomplete. With punter Zoltan Mesko nursing an injured left knee, the Patriots decided to go for it on fourth down. And when they didn't get it, Brady's impulse decision to go quickly on third down loomed larger as San Diego took over. But three plays later, Wilfork tripped Tolbert, Mayo stripped the ball and Rob Ninkovich recovered to get the ball back. Four plays later, Brady found Gronkowski from 17 yards out and - after the two-point conversion - it was 28-14. "It was a great challenge for us and we stepped out to the plate," Mayo said of the forced fumble. "Once again I just think it shows the confidence Coach Belichick has in us. We said that a couple of years ago with the Colts game (the infamous fourth-and-2). Same exact situation and we stepped up to the plate today."They didn't step to the plate against the Colts, though. And last season against the Chargers in a very similar situation - a failed fourth-and-1 from their own 49 with two minutes left while holding a three-point lead - they kinda failed too. San Diego picked up 17 yards and had a game-tying field goal attempt hit the upright with 27 seconds left. This time, the defense did make a play. "I tried to do too much," Tolbert lamented. "Get four yards, keep the ball in my hands. That's allI can do."But when you lose the way we did, on my hand - you got a good drive going, you can take the lead and I put the ball on the ground. You can't do that. I owe my coaches and my teammates better. I'll be better."The Patriots' defense has a long way to go. But one thing they can say they did "better" on Sunday was save the offense's bacon when it slipped into the fire. Tom E. Curran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran.
By Tom E. Curran