Though points aren't coming easy for Tom Brady and Co., New England takes a four-game winning streak into this coming week's bye thanks to a 21-13 victory over the Chargers Sunday afternoon at a dreary Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots continued to have some red zone struggles and what had been a streaking L.A. team made things difficult at times, New England holding just a 15-7 advantage at halftime and having to pick off a Philip Rivers pass at the goal line as time expired to seal the deal. The visitors hit pay dirt on an 87-yard Melvin Gordon touchdown run in the first quarter to take the early 7-0 advantage.
But the Chargers also helped the Patriots a bit, especially in special teams where Travis Benjamin's muffed punt and retreating return led to a safety for the home squad.
In many ways it was a struggle. But once again, a win is a win. New England hits the bye at 6-2 atop the AFC East.
"That's a good word for it," Brady said when asked about the "struggle" to finish drives. "The execution is coming up a little short at critical times. I'm glad we won. Starting at 0-1 and now we're 6-2. The biggest games are in front of us. We have to go play well."
"Obviously we left a lot of points on the field offensively," Bill Belichick said. "It's a good win. Good to beat the Chargers, a very good football team. We obviously have a lot of work to do."
Before moving on to the bye week, a time to recover and for some self-scouting preparing for a hellacious second-half schedule littered with road games, here are some of the personnel highs and lows from another hard-fought win in Foxborough.
Rex Burkhead/Dion Lewis/James White – New England's passing backs were the story for the offense and for the win. From wire-to-wire the three-headed monster of running backs got the job done. White had a big 28-yard catch-and-run on third down, on his way to a five-catch, 85-yard performance on six targets. Burkhead was even more efficient, catching all seven passes thrown his way for a game-high seven receptions for 68 yards with a long of 14. Lewis caught both passes thrown his way for 10 yards. The Chargers helped the Patriots out by not really covering the running backs, but to see the three guys catch 14 of 15 passes thrown their way for 163 yards is really impressive. And needed.
Malcolm Butler – New England's No. 1 cornerback wasn't challenged much by the Chargers. He also gave up a fourth-quarter touchdown to Travis Benjamin on which he allowed a free-release to the receiver but also seemed to indicate he was expecting help from Devin McCourty over the top. But Butler gets the Buy here for his hustle on Gordon's 87-yard score, looking like the fastest player on the field to get in position to try to punch the ball out at the goal line. It didn't end up meaning anything, but Butler showed the kind of fight and hustle that have made him an elite competitor for the entirety of his NFL career.
Chris Hogan –The receiver continues to take a pounding, leaving the game in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury that had him wearing a sling in the postgame locker room. But Hogan also continues to make key plays at key times. Hogan finished with five catches on seven targets for 60 yards. He had a couple key third-down conversions to set up scoring chances, including 5 yards on third-and-4 from the Chargers 7 just before Brady's 2-yard touchdown to a wide-open Rob Gronkowski.
Penalties – This has been a consistent area of concern pretty much all season. The Patriots have had at least five penalties in every game this season, including another six for 80 yards against the Chargers, who actually had 10 penalties in their own right. Joe Thuney had a pair, including a holding flag and a somewhat questionable clipping call. Nate Solder had a block in the back to bring back a big play, with the offensive line continuing to have too many flags as a group. With 59 penalties in eight games, the Patriots need to clean it up during the bye to avoid the issue continuing into the second half. Penalties become more of an issues as the season wears on and the games grow more important.
Stephen Gostkowski – In recent weeks Gostkowski has helped key wins while watching the other team's kicker struggle. And he did chip in to the victory by hitting four field goals, but he also missed a pair from 43 yards each that helped keep the Chargers in the low-scoring battle. Gostkowski and his coverage unit were once again tremendous on kickoffs, holding the Chargers at or inside the 20 three times. But if the Patriots are going to play tight games on the scoreboard with regularity they need to be able to count on Gostkowski to hit his kicks from inside the 45. That's the reality and high standard he faces.
Pass rush –* *The Chargers didn't throw the ball a lot, especially early. Rivers completed just four of five passes for 62 yards in the first half. Rivers finished with just 212 yards on his 17 completions overall and was held to just three of 10 on third downs. But it was no thanks to a pass rush, which never really got to the quarterback all afternoon. Rivers' only sack came when he dropped the ball rolling out. The official stats said New England hit him three times, but that may have been generous. The banged-up secondary is getting the job done these days without the benefit of really any pass rush.
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