By Art Martone
It's been said -- by Vince Lombardi, among others -- that winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.
As proof, may we present the New England Patriots.
Summary and statistics Play by play
The final score -- New England 23, San Diego 20 -- wasabout the only thing the Patriots can really feel good about Sunday,considering how the game played:
In the first half, they managed 34 total yards, their fewest number offirst-half yards in a game since Oct. 12, 2003. Despite that, they led athalftime, 13-3 . . . but couldn't shake the feeling they'd letopportunity slip away, as the Chargers committed a mind-boggling total of four turnovers. It was only a 10-point lead because the Pats cameaway with field goals -- including once when they took over on the SanDiego 8-yard line -- or nothing instead of touchdowns after most of the turnovers.
In the second half, their offense finally got in gear and gave them aseemingly comfortable 23-6 lead with 11:27 to play. Then it was thedefense's turn to fold up, allowing two touchdown drives in a span of 3minutes and 20 seconds that narrowed the lead to 23-20.
In a horrifying flashback to Indianapolis 2009, the Pats were stuffedon a fourth-and-1 at their own 49 with two minutes to go, giving SanDiego the ball with a short field to tie or win the game.
(And those flashbacks weren't limited to the stands, the press box, and living rooms across New England. "Shoot, it was like the Colts game all over again," Jerod Mayo said when asked when he thought of the decision to go for it.)
And in the end, it was the last of San Diego's suicidal mistakes --this one a false start on a 45-yard field-goal attempt by Kris Brown --more than anything New England did that enabled the Pats to escape with thewin. The five-yard penalty made it a 50-yard try, and Brown hit theright upright with the kick.
So instead of heading into overtime, the Pats are heading home in a tie for first place in the AFC East and also tied for having the best record in the NFL at 5-1.
"I wouldn't say we're in playoff form," said Tom Brady, "but I would say we're 5-1 and we've played some pretty tough teams."
Do the Chargers qualify as one of those tough teams? Well . . .
A 32-yard field goal by Brown had given them a 3-0 lead with 5:23 to play in the first quarter, and then the San Diego self-destruction began.
First it was a fumble by Kris Wilson that was recovered by Mayo at the San Diego 22. The Pats -- helped a little by an illegal-use-of-the-hands penalty that gave them a first-and-goal at the 5 -- went in on a one-yard, Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski touchdown that put them ahead, 7-3.
On the Chargers' next drive, rookie Richard Goodman committed their second turnover of the game, and it was one for the ages. After catching a 25-yard pass from Philip Rivers, he happily flipped the ball to the ground . . . except that he hadn't yet been touched and the play was still alive. James Sanders scooped up the ball and the Pats got possession on their own 41.
They were forced to punt, and San Diego moved from its 19 to the Pats' 32. But then came Turnover Number 3 and it was a doozy, too. Rivers threw behind Jacob Hester on a screen pass, and Hester made no attempt to retrieve the ball after it hit the ground. Linebacker Rob Ninkovich grabbed it and went 63 yards down the left sideline to the San Diego 8.
"We're not capable of taking care of the football," said a visibly perturbed Chargers coach Norv Turner.
They're capable of playing defense, though, as they pushed the Patriots' offense -- "What offense?" asked Brady sarcastically about New England's first-half efforts -- back to the 23 before a 40-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski gave New England a 10-3 lead.
Turnover Number 4 -- a Devin McCourty interception on a third-and-17 pass down the right sideline -- proved harmless, but a pass-interference penalty on Antoine Cason in the final two minutes put the ball on the San Diego 21. That eventually led to a 35-yard Gostkowski field goal that had the Pats in front, 13-3, at the half.
Yes, a 13-3 lead. Even though Brady was 6-for-16 for 35 yards and had been sacked three times. Even though they'd been outgained 146-34. Even though they only held the ball for about 12 12 minutes.
"We had a hard time moving at all," said Brady. "We couldn't get intoa rhythm at all. The second half was better, but I don't think it wasgreat by any stretch."
The first drive was. The Pats went to a no-huddle -- Deion Branch credited the move with changing the rhythm of the game and jumpstarting New England's attack -- and put together a 17-play, 79-yard drive that consumed 8 minutes and 35 seconds. It culminated with a one-yard touchdown run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, his fourth straight game with a rushing TD, that put New England in front, 20-3.
The teams traded field goals -- a 28-yarder by Brown on the first play of the fourth quarter, and another 35-yarder by Gostkowski -- and New England led, 23-6, with 11:27 to play.
And then the fun began.
First the Chargers went 67 yards and scored on a four-yard pass from Rivers to Antonio Gates with 7:21 left, making it 23-13. Then San Diego recovered an onside kick and went 60 yards -- key plays: consecutive passes by Rivers of 20 yards to Seyi Ajitotutu and 26 yards to Gates -- for the touchdown (three-yard run by Mike Tolbert) that cut New England's lead to 23-20 with 4:01 left.
The Pats caught a break when Brown sent the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, giving them the ball at the 40. A nine-yard Brady-to-Wes Welker pass made it second-and-1, but Danny Woodhead lost two yards on the next play. Another Brady-to-Welker pass gained two yards -- hearts were in New England mouths when the ball came loose and the Chargers gathered it up and began racing toward the end zone, but officials (correctly) ruled that the ball was down by contact -- and made it fourth-and-1 at the two-minute warning.
"Its Bill Belichick," said defensive back Kyle Arrington. "I knew we were going for it."
The 2009 season turned when they failed in a similar circumstance at Indianapolis, and they failed again this time as Green-Ellis was slammed back two yards.
"You've got to be able to think you can get that one yard," said Brady, who later added: "We tried it. We didn't execute it very well. But I'd go for it every time."
"Belichick has enough confidence in us to get it done on defense if they didn't get the first down," said Mayo, "and we got it done."
The first play was a 12-yard Rivers-to-Gates pass that gave the Chargers a first down at the Pats' 35. Rivers then missed on consecutive tosses to Patrick Crayton, and another pass to Gates only gained eight yards.
"Our defense came up big when we needed it," said Brady.
So out came Brown. But the final Chargers boo-boo -- a false start penalty -- pushed it just out of his reach. He clanked it off the right goalpost from 50 yards out, and the Pats had their victory.
"Makes that long ride back a lot easier," said defensive lineman Gerard Warren.
That it does.
Art Martone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org