A week after the Patriots had their seven-game winning streak snapped, New England got back on the winning track with an at times ugly, hard-fought victory over the Chargers.
Bill Belichick's team was not exactly the squad that put together blowout after blowout during its winning streak, but New England still improved to 10-3 on the season to maintain hold of the track toward the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff picture.
The New England Patriots take on the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday, December 7, 2014.
Offensively things were a struggle on the San Diego turf, including a third quarter that saw New England notch four straight three-and-outs.
Though the visitors took a 3-0 lead on a Stephen Gostkowski 22-yard field goal in the first quarter, San Diego bounced back to lead 14-3 in the second quarter. Rob Gronkowski's first touchdown in three games pulled the visitors to within 14-13.
After a scoreless third quarter that saw the team's combine for seven punts with the only other San Diego possession ending in an Akeem Ayers interception, New England got things going on offense in the fourth. The Patriots took the lead 16-14 on a 38-yard Gostkowski kick and then earned some breathing room when a missed/broken tackle turned a Julian Edelman play-action pass over the middle into a 69-yard touchdown.
Defensively New England threw a lot of personnel and looks at Philip Rivers' offense and more than got the job done. Brandon Bolden had a key blocked punt in the end of the second quarter that set up the Patriots on the Chargers 25 leading to Gronkowski's touchdown.
Offensively it was good enough. There were plenty of issues that Belichick will spend the next week cleaning up. The offensive line was not at its best. There were still a number of penalties. The two first-half turnover annoyed Belichick to the point that referencing those plays was all that the coach had to say to NBC sideline reporter Michelle Tafoya.
There are no extra points in the win column for pretty wins. Not on the road. Not in December. Not with conference seeding on the line.
On a night when the team played without defensive playcaller and key contributor Dont'a Hightower New England's defense stepped up and gave Brady and Co. plenty of time and chances to pull out the eventual victory.
New England finished what was supposed to be a season-defining six-game stretch with a 5-1 mark. That's propelled the Patriots into the driver's seat in the AFC playoff picture. What remains on the schedule is a trio of matchups with AFC East foes, two of which are at home.
That division slate to close out the year begins next week in Foxborough against the Dolphins, but first here's a look at the personnel highs and lows from the victory in San Diego:
Rob Gronkowski** – When the rest of the offense was struggling, Gronkowski was pretty much all the Patriots passing game had for stretches in San Diego. Big No. 87 got a decent battle from Chargers Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle, but still finished with eight catches for 87 yards and a touchdown. The 14-yard score came on a nice back-shoulder throw from Brady and put New England in the end zone for the first time with 3:28 to play in the second quarter.
Jamie Collins – With Dont'a Hightower sidelined with a shoulder injury, New England's second-year linebacker took over the green dot duties on defense while continuing to make plays. Collins had a pair of sacks on middle pressures that gave the Chargers offensive line major problems. He also had a game-high nine tackles, including eight solo stops. Collins was the only experienced linebacker on the field for New England and led an impressive defensive effort both in terms of production and on-field leadership/communication.
Darrelle Revis – Second-year Chargers receiver Keenan Allen entered the game with 72 catches for 762 yards. That was by far the most by a San Diego target and earned the young pass catcher a night-long battle with Revis. Allen finished the game with just two receptions for 3 yards as Revis never gave Rivers even the slightest of openings in Allen's direction. A week after giving up a big play that keyed Green Bay's victory over New England, Revis was about as dominant as you can be against a young playmaker.
Nate Solder – The left tackle struggled in pass protection. He struggled in run blocking. He simply struggled. He seemed to really have a hard time dealing with spin moves, which he curiously responded to with spin moves of his own. It's not a good look when a left tackle is facing his quarterback and failing to block his man, whether that be Melvin Ingram or Dwight Freeney.
Brandon LaFell – The veteran receiver has been a reliable complementary option for the better part of the last couple months. But on Sunday night he was too loose with the football on a fumble that was the first turnover of the season by any Patriot other than Brady and was recovered for a 53-yard touchdown. On a night when the passing game struggled to move the ball consistently LaFell made a big play for the other team and did little – four catches for 41 yards – for his own team.
Josh McDaniels – The Patriots offense drove right down the field on the Chargers on their opening drive. With first-and-goal at the San Diego 10 LeGarrette Blount ran all the way down to the 1. McDaniels then called for a pair of consecutive pass plays, the second out of the shotgun. One was batted down and the other resulted in a 7-yard sack of Brady. That led to a field goal, which wasn't even a certainty for a moment with a would-be blocked kick. McDaniels didn't have his best game as a playcaller, marking the second straight week the offensive game plan and playcalling come under fire.