Patriots escape San Diego with 23-20 victory


Patriots escape San Diego with 23-20 victory

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

Former NFL executive Hanks hits hard on Troy Vincent and NFL's Operations Department


Former NFL executive Hanks hits hard on Troy Vincent and NFL's Operations Department

Until April, this man was employed as an NFL VP of Operations.

That’s Merton Hanks, former San Francisco 49er and the man in charge of monitoring on-field behavior and meting out fines and discipline from 2011 until he was shuffled off the NFL’s premises in the spring.

Hanks was one of several operations guys given the gate as Troy Vincent, the NFL’s Executive VP of Football Operations, continues to drastically change personnel in the department that deals most closely with the on-field product.

On Thursday, I asked Hanks if he believed his Chicken Neck Dance would have drawn a flag.

“No question about it,” he laughed. “One person’s fun is someone else’s taunting penalty.”

Hanks now works as Senior Associate Commissioner for Conference USA. For 13 years, Hanks worked in the league office. Our conversation started with the NFL’s 2016 crackdown on excessive celebrations but ended with Hanks taking stock of the league’s Operations Department, an oft-overlooked layer charged with overseeing everything from officiating to field conditions, technology to discipline.

“The league has a problem,” Hanks said when asked about the cascade of flags this year. “The league has set itself up as an entertainment piece as well as an athletic piece. But its rules inherently skew toward the athletic piece, even though its presentation is an entertainment piece. So when you have athletes who have a clear picture of what the NFL is and understand part of its great nature is entertainment -- as the league likes to brag on, the top-rated shows in the history of television and so forth -- every player understands part of his athletic duty is to entertain the crowd. The way the rules are written, they’re not allowed to do that. So it’s almost as if the player is put in a position where he cannot fulfill his contractual duty within the larger scheme of the National Football League.”

There are myriad theories about what precisely is causing the NFL’s ratings malaise. My opinion is this: The obsession with micromanaging the product so it’s aesthetically but antiseptically pleasing to everyone and -- hence -- more marketable and profitable is the root of the problem.

How willing are they to chip away at the integrity of the games in the name of the integrity of the game?

When you think about how many games come down to seconds and inches, how hard players and coaches fight for them and the butterfly effect a 15-yard nonsense penalty for celebrating can have, it’s obvious they are going too far. But they just can’t help themselves.

There have been six more penalties for excessive celebration and 10 more penalties for taunting this season than in 2015. The excessive celebration flags included one on Vernon Davis for pretending to shoot a jumper with the football after a touchdown and another for Josh Norman for pretending to use a bow-and-arrow.

Asked Wednesday about the glut of unsportsmanlike calls, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said:

“It comes down to balancing a lot of issues, the professional standards that we want to uphold. We do believe that our players are role models and others look at that at the youth level. So that’s important for us to hold that standard up. And it’s part of being a professional. So that’s one element of it.”

Part of being an adult is being able to use discretion and differentiate between truly unsportsmanlike conduct -- like stomping on a fallen player’s leg or taking out a receiver’s knees from behind when he isn’t even thrown the ball -- and having a little fun.

“Discretion and consistency are incompatible,” countered Hanks. “What’s offensive to you may not be offensive to me in an official capacity as a league official. The safest way to deal with that from an officiating standpoint is to flag everything and coward the player back into obeying whatever rule is being emphasized and right now that’s sportsmanship. Sportsmanship, clean play and exciting play are not incompatible. But the NFL by nature, by its own design, is an entertainment vehicle. And when you strip away that all you have is just talented people playing football.”

As with so many NFL initiatives, there was a kernel of sense in what it set out to accomplish. Some of the ugliest incidents last year -- Odell Beckham’s cheap shot on Josh Norman and the Bengals-Steelers playoff meltdown -- were preceded by smaller incidents of jawing, demonstrating and agitating.  The NFL enacted a rule mandating ejections for multiple unsportsmanlike fouls in the same game. But they went overboard with their edict to flag with impunity normal post-play reactions.

“It’s an issue of control. It always has been,” said Hanks. “The NFL wants their players to be dynamic individuals from the start of the whistle to the end of the whistle, stop exactly what they’re doing on a dime, go back to their huddle and then do it again. After being in the league office and now being on the outside looking in after being in the league office for 13 seasons, there is a real line of demarcation that the NFL product inherently harms itself when it devalues its characters, when it doesn’t live up to the entertainment entity that in itself claims it is . . .

"Sportsmanship is a worthy goal. I’m not minimizing that. That’s the line the NFL is taking. But they are throwing out the baby with the bath water. They are stripping away what makes the league a must-watch event.”
* * * * *
When railing against “the league,” the targets of fan and media bile are most often Goodell, the NFL’s Competition Committee and whatever official is walking the beat in a game that goes South.

But NFL Operations oversees it all, as the gaudy website ordered up by the department’s overlord Vincent brags.

As we cast about wondering what ails the NFL, it’s important to note the timeline of Vincent’s ascent.

In December of 2013, former EVP of Football Ops, Ray Anderson stepped down and soon took a job as AD at Arizona State. In March of 2014, Vincent was installed as Anderson’s successor.

It’s been one disaster after another with Vincent working shoulder-to-shoulder with Goodell.

There was the Ray Rice case, which had Vincent testifying before Congress that the league "didn't need" to see more than one tape before imposing its original two-game suspension. There was Vincent’s admission on 60 Minutes that he didn’t read the independent investigation report from former FBI Director Robert Mueller regarding the Rice case.

Vincent was there the night Deflategate began and let his game operations lieutenants, like Mike Kensil, start a witch hunt that Vincent -- if he knew what the hell was going on -- would have been able to at least rein in before it got ridiculous.

How far removed was Vincent from even knowing the purported backstory the Colts passed on to Kensil and Dave Gardi about their suspicions? So removed that he testified at the appeal hearing he hadn’t heard a thing about it – despite scads of e-mails flying around in the days prior to the AFC Championship Game – until Colts GM Ryan Grigson invaded the box containing Vincent and Kensil and said, “We’re playing with a small ball.”

The Hall of Fame Game fiasco in August? A Troy Vincent production.

The in-game technology that Bill Belichick threw his hands up about this week? That’s under Vincent’s purview.

Interestingly, this seemingly distracted, disinterested, overmatched individual in charge of the product we watch was actually on the brink of being the NFLPA’s Executive Director back in 2009.

NFL owners and Goodell desperately wanted Vincent to succeed the late Gene Upshaw so that the cozy relationship between the league and union would continue. For years, Upshaw was criticized for rolling over too easily for NFL commissioners Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue. Vincent was Upshaw’s heir apparent until an alleged coup attempt by Vincent to have Upshaw ousted backfired. Despite the controversy, Vincent was still the favorite to be named.

When DeMaurice Smith was selected instead, the stage was set for the rancorous NFL-NFLPA relationship we’ve seen develop. Smith has tried to advocate for a group that for decades had the sorriest labor agreement of the four major professional sports. Vincent, meanwhile, was hired by the NFL as a player engagement executive and began his quick climb to where he currently sits – right next to Goodell. And, tellingly, he now criticizes the NFLPA for spending too much money to advocate for players -- which is what the union’s there for.

Asked about Vincent, Hanks said, “He’s made some moves that you want to question. I’m part of the party that’s moved on doing other things so I certainly don’t want to come off as someone who is trying to attack their current leader. But at the same time, the facts are the facts. Look at what’s happened. Look at why it’s happened and I think you will start drawing certain parallels, certain conclusions.”

A big part of what’s happened is the department has been transformed under Vincent. Hanks is gone. Kensil, whose name is mud here in New England but who had more institutional knowledge about how to put on an NFL game than anyone on the planet, has been reassigned out of Ops. Myriad other lieutenants and operatives in the multi-tiered department have been moved around or let go.  

“I think (operations) is something, for the most part, your average fan may have to have explained to them,” said Hanks. “They may not care, quite frankly. They’re about the business of showing up on game day, tailgating and having a good time. But when you talk to the 32 clubs and associated personnel, it’s very interesting when you talk to those folks vs. your average fan. For those folks, it really is a different deal.

“It’s a cliché, but the trains have to run on time,” continued Hanks. “Every time. The basic mechanisms of putting on the game have to work every time. It’s inherently your job. So that when something fails in operations -- and something can always fail because there are so many aspects -- but you take the hit on it. It’s a very bottom-line deal in that regard. If we get 1,000 things right on any given day and two or three go wrong, we have to figure out what to do to correct it. Immediately. That’s regardless of sport. Any sport. Operations is a tough and unforgiving business. It’s an interesting challenge but those things are exacerbated when you’re either missing key people or you haven’t developed key people to the point where they can pick up the ball and run with it and make it seamless. It appears some of that has taken place.”

I asked Hanks if Vincent was part of the problem.  

“On the record, you could not find a greater leader of men than (Vincent’s predecessor) Ray Anderson,” was Hanks’ telling response. “A tremendous leader in all facets who understood the game from having been in all facets. Agent, club side, league side. I would say there’s tremendous amount of institutional knowledge that is not there right now. They are missing quite a bit of pure institutional knowledge because you don’t have people who’ve been through the fire and seen it all in football operations. I think that’s fair to say and totally undisputed. It’s almost when you go young as a team you’re going to have some growing pains. I think the football operations team is experiencing a little bit of that.”

Could Hanks say whether or not Vincent is doing a good job?

“That’s for Roger [Goodell] to say,” Hanks replied. “My concern is to make sure my (Conference USA commissioner) thinks I’m doing a good job. There’s a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge not in place (with the NFL). And when you’re missing that, some things may fall through the cracks.”

THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Rodgers throws 3 TD passes, Packers beat Bears, 26-10


THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Rodgers throws 3 TD passes, Packers beat Bears, 26-10

GREEN BAY, Wis. - Aaron Rodgers set a record. The Chicago Bears lost another quarterback.

After a slow start in the red zone, the Green Bay Packers picked up the pace in the second half to overpower their offensively-challenged NFC North rivals.

Rodgers threw for 326 yards and three touchdowns, Davante Adams and Ty Montgomery emerged as playmakers in the second half and Packers beat the Bears 26-10 on Thursday night.

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