SAN DIEGO – Sometimes, one series can determine the outcome of a football game.
You saw it Sunday night in San Diego.
Trailing 17-3 at intermission, the Patriots took the opening kickoff of the second half and promptly marched from their own 22-yard line down to the Chargers 1.
A touchdown appeared inevitable.
"When we have first and goal at the one," quarterback Matt Casseltold reporters afterward, "we anticipate putting the ball in [the end zone] in that situation."
But it didn't materialize.
"That was definitely discouraging," he stated matter-of-factly. More than just discouraging, however, the four downs that ensued manifestly altered the outcome of the contest.
On first-and-goal, Cassel play-actioned, but couldn't find an open receiver. He threw the ball away.
Running back Sammy Morristook the handoff on second down, but was stuffed at the line of scrimmage.
Cassel looked to have an uncovered Heath Evanscoming out of the backfield on third-and-goal, but didn't spot the fullback to his left. Cassel forced a pass over the middle in traffic that fell short.
Facing fourth-and-goal, Patriots head coach Bill Belichickdidn't need much time to decide his next move. Instead of kicking a chip-shot field goal, Belichick opted to keep his offense (including linebacker Mike Vrabellined up as a tight end) on the field.
Cassel again faked a handoff and spun around to find an open teammate. Television replays showed that tight end Benjamin Watsonhad snuck through the Chargers defensive line and was wide open in the middle of the end zone. Yet, Cassel, checking down all his options on the play, failed to spot Watson for what would have been an easy touchdown pass.
"It was a progression read, and we just went through it and I didn't see anybody open. I was hoping to make a play with my legs and it didn't happen," said Cassel.
He tucked the football under his arm and tried to dart for the end zone. Defensive tackle Ryon Binghamwas waiting for him and sacked Cassel for a one-yard loss.
"They did a good job," a dejected Cassel continued. "We called three passes, we had a run. I threw one away, then we tried to run the ball. The next was another throw, and we just kind of missed it. And then the next one was the same thing. So, it was a great defensive stand by them."
Not only did the Charger defense do its job, the San Diego offense held up its end of the bargain as well. It took Chargers QB Philip Riversjust four plays to take his team 98 yards for a touchdown – a 14-point swing that broke the Pats' backs.
"Huge play. Huge play," observed safety Rodney Harrison. "If we score, it's 17-10. Despite everything that went wrong for us [to that point], we still had opportunities to be competitive. After that, it just sucked all the wind out of us … you just can't recover."
"That was a big series in the game," Cassel added. "It would have put us within a score. It didn't happen. That's just part of football, unfortunately."
Sometimes, yes, it is.