Patriots' defense stands tall in 35-21 victory

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Patriots' defense stands tall in 35-21 victory

By ArtMartone
CSNNE.com

FOXBORO -- Yes, they gave up 21 points. Yes, they gave up 470 yards. Yes, they probably made things a little more interesting than they'd have liked.

But don't let it be said that the Patriots' defense didn't have a hand -- a big one -- in Sunday's 35-21 victory over the Chargers at Gillette Stadium.

They had their second goal-line stand in two weeks -- stopping San Diego on a first-and-goal from the 4, with Jerod Mayo stuffing Mike Tolbert on fourth down from the 1 -- to protect a 10-7 lead in the second quarter.

Vince Wilfork's first career interception set up a last-play-of-the-first-half Stephen Gostkowski field goal that put the Pats in front, 20-7.

An interception by Sergio Brown, his first since high school, on the New England 7 stopped a Chargers scoring chance in the third quarter.

And after the Pats had turned the ball over after a failed fourth-and-four from the San Diego 49 in the fourth quarter with a slim 20-14 lead -- a decision made in part because punter Zoltan Mesko suffered a knee injury earlier in the period -- Mayo forced a Tolbert fumble that was recovered by Rob Ninkovich. The Pats then went down and scored, making it 28-14 and, even though the Chargers would score again, tipping the game in their favor.

The defense put the exclamation point on the victory when Mark Anderson recovered a Philip Rivers fumble -- the fourth San Diego turnover of the game -- with 1:02 to play.

The turnovers led directly to 10 points, and the goal-line stand led to seven more for a total of 17 . . . in a 14-point victory.

"If the defense makes a big stop like that (goal-line stand), you got to do something with it," said quarterback Tom Brady. "If the defense gets you the ball (via turnovers), you got to do something with it."

The teams had traded scores in the first quarter. A 14-yard Brady-to-Aaron Hernandez touchdown pass capped a 12-play, 92-yard drive that gave the Patriots a 7-0 lead. Then a pair of acrobaticthird-down catches by Malcom Floyd -- one for 23 yards over the middleof the field that put the ball on the New England 40, and the other a36-yarder down the sideline that moved San Diego to the Pats' 10 -- setup a 10-yard touchdown run by Ryan Mathews, finishing off an 80-yardmarch.

The Pats went ahead, 20-7, in the second quarter when, after a Gostkowski chip-shot field goal made it 10-7, they scored on a pair of defense-to-offense scoring drives.

After Mayo stopped Tolbert and the Pats took over on their own 1, two plays -- a 12-yard pass from Brady to WesWelker, and a 30-yard completion from Brady to Chad Ochocinco -- put them near midfield. From there, they marched implacably downfield until Bradyhit Rob Gronkowski with a 10-yard touchdown pass that put the Pats infront, 17-7.

TheChargers drove to the New England 29 in the final minute of thehalf, but Wilfork deflected and intercepted a Rivers pass and rumbled 28 yards into San Diegoterritory.

"There isn't a fat guy who doesn't like to run the ball," joked offensive lineman Matt Light.

A block-in-the-back penalty returned the ball to SanDiego 47, but Brady hit two quick passes to Deion Branch, of 11 and 7yards, that moved the Pats to the 29 with one second left. Gostkowski then drilled a 47-yard field goal as time expired, givingNew England a 20-7 lead.

The Chargers narrowed it to 20-14 on a three-yard pass from Rivers to Vincent Jackson early in the fourth quarter, which finished off a 10-play, 64-yard drive. Then they got the ball back at the 49 after the missed fourth-and-four Brady-to-Branch pass attempt, and quickly moved to the 34 on a pair of Rivers passes to Ryan Mathews.

But Tolbert was stripped of the ball by Mayo and Ninkovich recovered on the 39. It took Brady four plays -- a one-yard loss by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, followed by completions of 33 yards to Branch, 12 yards to Welker and 17 yards (and a touchdown) to Gronkowski -- to convert the fumble into a score. A two-point conversion run by Danny Woodhead made the score 28-14.

The Chargers got back to 28-21 on a 26-yard Rivers scoring pass to Jackson, but Green-Ellis made it a 14-point game again with 1:54 to play, capping a nine-play, 80-yard drive with a 16-yard scoring run.

Brady had another 400-yard passing day (423, to be exact), completing 31 of 40 attempts. Branch caught 8 passes for 129 yards, and Welker and Hernandez each had seven receptions. Overall, the Pats had 504 yards total offense.

"I'm excited," said Branch. "I'm excited to see what this offense will look like once we put everything together."

If it looks as good as the defense looked when it counted on Sunday, they'll be in good shape.

ArtMartone can be reached at amartone@comcastsportsnet.com.

Quick Slants Podcast: Antonio Brown’s betrayal; Matt Light; eyeing up Pittsburgh

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Quick Slants Podcast: Antonio Brown’s betrayal; Matt Light; eyeing up Pittsburgh

Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry discuss the aftermath of Antonio Brown’s Facebook Live video. Curran interview Matt Light ahead of the AFC Championship. They dissect the press conferences of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and look at how to beat the Steelers.

SUBSCRIBE iTunes | Google Play | Spotify | Stitcher | AudioBoom

2:29 Antonio Brown’s Facebook Live aftermath

13:14 Stopping Le’Veon Bell

27:16 heywassyonumba? with Patrick Chung and Kyle Van Noy

32:30 Injury report updates for AFC Championship

36:51 Brady and Belichick’s press conferences

44:50 Matt Light interview

Belichick asked if playing at home helps: 'Go ask Dallas and Kansas City'

Belichick asked if playing at home helps: 'Go ask Dallas and Kansas City'

FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick knows that how you play, not where, is what matters most. 

That's why when he was asked on Wednesday about the advantage the Patriots will have by playing at Gillette Stadium in the AFC title game, he wasn't willing to go all-in on how a comfortable environment will positively impact his team.

"I don’t know," he said. "Go ask Dallas and Kansas City."

The Patriots apparently thought enough of home-field advantage that they played their starters throughout their regular-season finale win in Miami, exposing their best players to potential injury in order to maintain their positive momentum while simultaneously ensuring a better road to the Super Bowl. 

The Patriots fans in attendance on Sunday will help when the Patriots take on the Steelers, Belichick acknowledged. But there's much more to it than that. 

"Yeah, of course," he said, "but the game is won by the players on the field. That’s who wins football games – the players. And they’ll decide it Sunday night."

And if you needed any further proof, just ask the Cowboys and Chiefs how helpful their home crowds were in the Divisional Round.