There are questions about the Patriots' running game, questions about the pass defense, and questions about the play calling on offense.
Among all the questions, however, one stands out: Where are the takeaways? The Patriots' defense came up empty on interceptions and forced fumbles for the game, and now has just three takeaways for the season.
Takeaways have been a key ingredient of the Patriots' dynasty that has seen them win three of the last four Super Bowls. Think of Ty Law intercepting Peyton Manning three times in the 2003 AFC Championship, or Tedy Bruschi prying the ball away from Colts' Dominic Rhodes in the 2004 Divisional Playoff, or Rodney Harrison making six interceptions in New England's last six playoff games.
Law, Bruschi and Harrison changed games with their big plays, but they are gone, and the Patriots missed their brand of mayhem on Sunday as the Chargers executed six scoring drives that totaled 57 plays and 387 yards and chewed up 29:23 on clock.
The Patriots could really have used a turnover or two in the second half. Their offense was sputtering, and the Chargers were marching uninterrupted down the field for a score on each possession, but no Patriot defender stepped up to make a game-changing play.
"We didn't make many of the plays we needed to make," said Head Coach Bill Belichick. "They made an awful lot all through the game, and especially in the second half, obviously."
The teams began the second half tied at 17-17 in what had been a competitive game. The Patriots had surrendered 188 yards in the first half but had torched the Chargers for 243 yards of their own. RB Corey Dillon had been held in check again (nine first-half carries for 38 yards), but QB Tom Brady had completed 14 of 23 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown. WR David Givens was off to another sensational start with six catches for 66 yards.
The second half started well for the Patriots, with Corey Dillon gaining eight yards on the first play from scrimmage and then going off right tackle for 14 more on the next play. But the fun ended abruptly as Chargers DE Jacques Cesaire busted through the Patriots line and dropped Dillon for a seven-yard loss, then Patriots TE Ben Watson was called for a false start, and the Patriots were looking at second-and 22. Two plays later Josh Miller punted, and the party was over for the New England offense.
New England ran only 13 more offensive plays in the second half. The results were 31 nets yards, two first downs, two punts, two interceptions and zero points.
Belichick cited the negative plays as a problem for the offense. "Negative plays hurt you offensively. They're hard to overcome, whether they're penalties, sacks or negative plays in the running game," he said. "It's hard to get 10 yards as it is. You're trying to get 20 and 17 and all that with minus plays in there, it's just too much. We've got to eliminate those plays."
The offense has run into walls before, but the defense has nearly always been there to bail them out with takeaways. Not this time, though.
After Miller's first second-half punt, the Chargers marched 80 yards on nine plays, taking a 24-17 lead on a one-yard run by RB LaDainian Tomlinson. Chargers QB Drew Brees and TE Antonio Gates hooked up twice on the drive, including a 38-yard completion that took the ball to the New England 1-yard line. Gates was covered on that play by Guss Scott, the second-year safety who stepped in when Rodney Harrison suffered a season-ending knee injury last week in Pittsburgh.
After the Patriots went three-and-out on their next possession, the Chargers ran off another impressive drive, covering 75 yards in eight plays. Brees finished off the drive with a 28-yard TD pass to Reche Caldwell, but the Chargers did most of the damage on the ground, including back-to-back runs of 18 and 7 yards by reserve RB Michael Turner. With 19 seconds remaining in the third quarter, the Chargers were up 31-17.
"Every time they got the ball they drove it and ended up with points," Belichick said.
It was no surprise that the San Diego offense got on a roll. The Chargers were coming off a 45-point performance against the New York Giants in which RB Tomlinson had rushed for 192 yards and three touchdowns and Brees had completed 19 of 22 passes.
What was surprising, however, was the lack of pressure that the Patriots put on Brees. He was never sacked and rarely hurried as he completed 19 of 24 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns. Pressuring the passer is the one thing that Patriots had done well all season. Last week, the Patriots had Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger on the run constantly.
The pass rush presumably will return, but one has to wonder where the turnovers will come from.
In their last two seasons, the Patriots picked off a combined 49 passes in 32 games. Through four games this year, they have but one interception, by LB Mike Vrabel. The only Patriots defenders to have intercepted more than four passes in a season are Tyrone Poole and Duane Starks, but Poole is injured and Starks appears to be playing at less than full speed. (Brees picked on Starks repeatedly on Sunday.) Safety Eugene Wilson has eight picks in two seasons, but CB Asante Samuel has only three picks in the span. Guss Scott has no NFL interceptions and had only four picks in four years of college ball.
In Harrison, Law and Bruschi, New England lost three prolific interceptors. Law has 37 careers picks, Harrison 31, and Bruschi 11 (including three in each of the last two seasons.)
The Patriots also forced 23 fumbles in the last two seasons, but six of those came from the opportunistic Bruschi and four from Harrison. LBs Willie McGinest (14) and Chad Brown (19) and DT Richard Seymour (15) have forced plenty of fumbles in their careers. The Patriots need more of that from them to stop the bleeding when an opponent gets rolling like the Chargers did on Sunday.
Notes: The Patriots had won 21 straight at Gillette Stadium. … San Diego gained 431 yards for the game and made 26 first downs, including 7 of 12 on third down (58 percent). … Tomlinson finished with 134 yards on 25 carries and 34 receiving yards on three catches. … For the Patriots, Dillon had another subpar performance, totaling 63 yards on 14 carries. After averaging 109 yards a game in 2004, he is averaging 55.8 yards in 2005. … Brady went 19-for 32 for 224 yards, with one touchdown, one pick and one sack. He passed for only 11 yards in the second half. … Matt Cassel replaced Brady on the last series and threw a pick after completing two of three. … Patrick Pass led Patriots receivers with eight catches for 55 yards. Givens had six for 66 yards. Deion Branch had only one catch for six yards.