SAN DIEGO - New England's confidence is building. Even though the Patriots haven't yet played their best football, they've managed to lose just one game in six to start this season.
How? The specific answer changes week to week, but the underlying reason remains the same. New England's opponents are inventing methods of self-destruction, while the Patriots are finding, at the very last moment, ways to escape doing so themselves.
In the first half Sunday, for instance, the San Diego Chargers electrocuted themselves. In the second, they nearly stunned the Patriots with a shocker of a comeback.
Doing everything they possibly could to lose the game in the opening stages of the game - a bone-headed receiver placing the ball on the ground before he was touched, a backward pass that resulted in the second-longest fumble return in Patriots history - San Diego's league-leading offense recharged at the end with some creativity of their own.
Even with a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Patriots' young defense gave you the feeling that the outcome was far from a foregone conclusion.
Unlike last week, when the Baltimore Ravens had the upper hand but played to lose by not going for it on fourth and inches, Norv Turner's desperate Chargers went for broke when they cut the lead to 10 by successfully executing an onside kick. That gave the Bolts the boost they needed to find the end zone again with just over four minutes remaining.
All seemed lost for a moment when Wes Welker appeared to fumble and Chargers safety Eric Weddlereturned it for a third score. Serendipitously, though, not only did Welker's knee brush the ground prior to the ball coming loose, the ground also caused the fumble, thereby nullifying the play.
But the Chargers got one more crack at it, thanks to a failed fourth-down attempt by the Patriots at midfield. And it looked like San Diego would have enough juice left to overpower the Patriots. That's when the New England defense stepped up, finding inspiration from yet another unlikely source.
Rookie safety Sergio Brown, activated from the practice squad just this weekend, made what turned out to be the game-saving tackle on San Diego's All-Pro tight end, Antonio Gates. The play left the Chargers just short of a first down, forcing them to attempt a game-tying field goal from 45 yards out. But a Charger false started, pushing his team back five yards. Kicker Kris Brown, replacing injured incumbent Chargers starter Nate Kaeding, then doinked his kick off the right upright, preserving the Patriots victory.
Throughout the near-meltdown, however, players on both sides of the ball insisted afterward that they never doubted themselves or their teammates.
"Hats off to the defense. They did a great job," raved WR Deion Branch. "I've been playing this game nine years … I wasn't worried. Those guys were fighting hard the whole game, the defense. … Went for it on 4th down, didn't get it … I wasn't worried."
"That's what this team does. They keep their poise," NT Vince Wilforkobserved. "These guys play to the whistle. At times when they don't do that, we have problems. But we stay positive, because anything can happen.
"Many times we went over that situation in practice. You know what, we handled it well in the game, in that type of environment. Coming into San Diego, playing a Charger team - no matter their record - they always play us tough, especially at home. To come out with a 'w,' that's a positive for us."
"It was a great game. You've got the number-one offense in the league, it's hard to keep them down for the whole game," added safety Brandon Meriweather.
"We already knew what time it was [at the end]. It was on us."
"Our defense really came up big when we needed them," said QB Tom Brady.
"I have faith in my defense. I know they got our back and we got their back, when it comes down to it. I knew the defense was going to step up," insisted TEAaron Hernandez.
That growing confidence is infectious, apparently. Though the team understands it is not functioning at its highest level, both sides of the ball, plus the special teams units, are keeping their wits about them, while their opponents are losing theirs.
"We have a lot of confidence, certainly. We have more confidence when we play a lot better. We're still working at it. I wouldn't say we're in playoff form, or anything like that. I would say we're 5-1, we've faced some tough teams, some tough defenses. We're just trying to improve.
"I think that's one thing we've shown," Brady concluded. "We're going to keep fighting all the way to the end ... It's great to win the game when you don't play great."
They Patriots aren't playing their best football. But they're still 5-1. In this league, in this particular year, when no one seems to be playing consistently well, the latter fact is far more important.