Patriots escape San Diego with 23-20 victory

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Patriots escape San Diego with 23-20 victory

By Art Martone
CSNNE.com

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.

Fourth-and-1.

"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 amartone@comcastsportsnet.com

Flashback: Belichick breaks down lasting impact of Buddy Ryan's '46' defense

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Flashback: Belichick breaks down lasting impact of Buddy Ryan's '46' defense

When news broke on Tuesday of Buddy Ryan's passing, it wasn't very long before the NFL community at large paid tribute to one of the most well-respected defensive minds in the history of the league. 

Ryan, a longtime coordinator and head coach, leaves a legacy that includes two sons -- Rex and Rob -- who have carved out length careers spent on NFL sidelines. His legacy also includes a defensive scheme that confounded offenses, particularly in 1985, when the Bears '46' defense dominated all comers. With eight men in the box and just three defensive backs, Ryan's defense could be as confusing for quarterbacks as it was intimidating.

On the day of Ryan's passing, we can add to the list of Ryan rememberances a long quote from a Bill Belichick press conference back in 2012. The Patriots were getting ready to play Rex Ryan's Jets, but as the topic of conversation shifted away from the game itself and toward football philosophies, Belichick explained how Ryan's '46' defense changed the game, and where it can still be seen today. 

(To see the video of the press conference, you can head here. It's a bit slow for the first six or seven minutes, but when Belichick is asked about the idea behind being a "game-plan offense" and which coaches inspired him to take that mindset into his own career, things start rolling. Belichick rattles off the names of those who influenced him, including Annapolis High coach Al Laramore, Phillips Andover's Steve Sorota, Navy coach Wayne Hardin, Baltimore Colts coach Ted Marchibroda and several others. He calls the list of coaches who educated him -- including his father, of course -- a "menagerie." If you're into those types of Belichick responses about football philosophy and his own personal football upbringing, it's a video that's worth your time.)

Here is Belichick's response to a question from Sports Illustrated's Greg Bedard, then of the Boston Globe, concerning Ryan and his '46' scheme. A tip of the hat to Chris B. Brown of Smart Football for pointing out the quote on Twitter early Tuesday. 

Q: You mentioned Buddy Ryan earlier. How come we don’t see more 46 defense? I’m not talking about for a full season – not everybody is the ’85 Bears, but in a one-game situation. Is it because of the quarterbacks and the shotgun?

BB: "A lot of the success that Buddy had with the 46 defense came in the ‘80s when there was a lot of two-back offense. It was one of the things that probably drove the two-back offense out. If you remember back in the ‘80s when Buddy was in Philadelphia, he had a lot of trouble with the Redskins and their one-back offense, a lot of trouble. There were a lot of mismatches of Art Monk and Gary Clark on the middle linebacker and stuff like that.

"I think the 46 was really originally built for two-back offenses, whether it be the red, brown, blue and the flat-back type offenses and eventually even the I-formation. I think it still has a lot of good application; a lot of teams use it in goal-line situations. They either use a version of it like a 5-3 or cover the guards and the center and however you want to quite fit the rest of it, but that principle you see a lot in goal-line, short yardage situations. You see it and some teams have it as part of their two-back defensive package.

"As it has gone to one-back and it’s gotten more spread out, if you’re playing that, it kind of forces you defensively to be in a one-linebacker set. You lose that second linebacker and depending on where the back lines up and what coverage you’re playing, then there’s some issues with that. If you’re in a one linebacker defense and you move the back over and the linebacker moves over then you’re kind of out-leveraged to the back side. If you don’t move him over, then you’re kind of out-leveraged when the back releases and that kind of thing.

"There are some issues there that, I’m not saying you can’t do it, but you have to work them out. In a two-back set, I’d say it was probably a lot cleaner and it always gave you an extra blitzer that was hard for the offense. Even if they seven-man protected on play-action, there was always an eighth guy there somewhere. You didn’t have to bring all eight; if you just brought the right one and they didn’t have him or somebody would have to have two guys and that creates some problems.

"I think that’s what Buddy, really, where the genius of that was. He had by formation a different combination and group of blitzes so depending on what formation you were in, then he ran a blitz that would attack that formation and then when you changed formations, then he would change blitzes. Now, plus the fact [he] had Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, [Otis] Wilson, [Wilbur] Marshall, that was a pretty good group there. You could have probably played a lot of things and that defense would have looked pretty good, especially when they put Hampton on the nose. That was pretty unblockable."

Amendola forced Brady to break a ping pong paddle in first week with Patriots

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Amendola forced Brady to break a ping pong paddle in first week with Patriots

Tom Brady has never been one to hide his emotions when he's on the field, and it sounds like he's not much different at the ping pong table.

When asked about Brady during an interview on ESPN's NFL Insiders show, Patriots receiver Danny Amendola recalled one story from his first few days at Gillette Stadium back in 2013.

"He's the best teammate," Amendola said. "He's so competitive . . . I remember one story, it was my first week in the building and he wanted to play some ping pong. I didn't know how to go about it. I knew I was better than him, [but] I didn't want to beat him too bad because I wanted him to throw me the ball.

"I knew I was better. Needless to say, his competitive nature unleashed a broken paddle by the end of it. It's the reason we love him, and the reason why he's the best quarterback."

That first encounter at the ping pong table didn't seem to hinder Amendola's relationship with Brady in the least. In their first game together, Amendola fought a groin injury and still ended up with 10 catches for 104 yards in a win over the Bills. Since then, when healthy -- and particularly since New England's most recent run to a Super Bowl title -- Amendola has established himself as one of Brady's most trusted targets.

Amendola and the rest of the Patriots are facing a start to the regular season without their No. 1 quarterback as Brady awaits a decision from the Second Circuit on whether or not it will rehear his case against the NFL. Should backup Jimmy Garoppolo take the reins in Brady's place, however, Amendola said he'll be confident. 

"He's a great player," Amendola explained. "He's been in the system a couple of years now and he's learned a lot. He's picked up everything that Tom has taught him and then also what coach [Bill] Belichick has to offer him. So we're all excited to see where he goes and see what the future holds for him."

Amendola says he feels 'really good' following offseason surgeries

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Amendola says he feels 'really good' following offseason surgeries

Danny Amendola did not participate in OTA or minicamp practices that were open to reporters, but that doesn't mean he's ailing. 

"I feel really good," Amendola said while paying ESPN's NFL Insiders show a visit. "I had a couple minor procedures done after the season. Everybody knows how long the season can be. I wanted to go into next season feeling as fresh and ready as I can."

Amendola joined a relatively long list of Patriots regulars -- including LeGarrette Blount, Julian Edelman, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon -- who were not spotted during spring workouts. There exists, however, some optimism that he'll be ready to participate in training camp.

Though Amendola has battled nagging injuries in three seasons with the Patriots, he's often played through them rather than miss time. The 30-year-old wideout has played in all but six regular-season games since 2013.

Amendola is coming off of his best year in a Patriots uniform, finishing 2015 with 65 catches for 648 yards and three scores. He now helps make up a receiving corps that will include Edelman, newly-acquired wideouts Chris Hogan and Nate Washington, Aaron Dobson, DeAndre Carter, Chris Harper and rookies Malcolm Mitchell and Devin Lucien.