There was no Chandler Jones. There was no Dont’a Hightower. But there was continuity from the New England Patriots’ defense against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday night, even without them.
The 23-14 final score reflected it.
New England’s defense started fast, holding quarterback Philip Rivers and the San Diego offense to seven plays and a punt on the opening series before its own offense claimed a 16-play drive, capped off by a Stephen Gostkowski field goal.
The first blood was drawn along with it, 3-0.
Even so, the Chargers would respond on the Qualcomm Stadium field, taking a 7-0 lead at the 13:36 mark in the second quarter on a 15-yard red-zone pass from Rivers to 6-foot-5, 225-pound wideout Malcom Floyd over 6-foot-4, 221-pound cornerback Brandon Browner. Then, just three plays and a fumble from Patriots receiver Brandon LaFell later, New England had given way to a 53-yard touchdown return for by safety Jahleel Addae.
With the first turnover of the season by a Patriot not named Brady, San Diego suddendly assumed a 14-3 lead with 11:06 left in the second.
Only San Diego would not score again.
The Patriots strung together a 12-play drive that ended in another three points, closing the gap to eight before halfback and core special-teamer Brandon Bolden rejected a punt from the Chargers’ Mike Scifres. And a 14-yard touchdown toss from Brady to tight end Rob Gronkowski was the byproduct four snaps later.
New England’s front seven, however, proceeded to get to Rivers on an A-gap blitz from 2013 second-round linebacker Jamie Collins. And not long after, kicker Nick Novak was forced to step in for an injured Scifres to punt a 27-yarder.
The short change in field position set the Patriots up with an opportunity. The opportunity, though, would be missed as Brady underthrew a ball to Gronkowski in the left corner of the end zone, and Chargers linebacker Manti Te’o found the difference for an interception before halftime.
The Patriots headed into the locker room down by one. Yet that deficit seemed like much more as the New England offense was left to punt on its next for possessions to start the second half.
But the Chargers could not answer those stifling moments with points. The seventh sack of left defensive end Rob Ninkovich’s campaign parlayed into one punt. Then another punt was the result for San Diego before Patriots right defensive end Akeem Ayers dropped back on a zone blitz with 4:55 left in the third frame.
As Jones’ replacement did so, it was Hightower’s replacement, Jonathan Casillas, who collided with rookie center Chris Watt on his way through the A-gap. And the end result was an Ayers interception.
New England would not take the lead on that momentum swing. But the offense would do so on its next chance, as Gostkowski converted on a 38-yarder following a stalled eight-play drive.
The score read 16-14 following the kick, and the Patriots would hold it there.
New England’s ground game, led by LeGarrette Blount’s 20 carries for a trying 66 yards, was able to do enough to open the passing game thenceforth. As with under nine minutes to play in the final quarter, the play action was called upon. Chargers safety Eric Weddle closed in, all while Edelman closed behind him.
The outcome was a 69-yard catch and run for a touchdown.
The play marked the longest reception of Edelman’s career, but it also marked the largest lead New England had managed in Week 14. It was a lead that would not be relinquished.
Patriots defensive tackles Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones got to Rivers on San Diego’s ensuing drive, thrusting San Diego’s punt team on the field with just over six minutes to go. In the aftermath, New England proceeded to hand off to Blount on four of the eight plays, while four minutes drained off the game clock before punter Ryan Allen booted a touchback.
There wasn’t enough left for San Diego.
With four pass attempts from Rivers, it was over. Two kneel-downs from Brady were the finishing touches, as the Patriots moved back to the AFC lead with a 10-3 record and the Chargers moved to 8-5.
New England’s defense was the only constant in that outcome, even when the personnel within it was not.
1. Collins Breaks Through: New England’s defense was without its green dot versus San Diego, but Collins assumed the communication role and the playmaker role along with it. The second-year Southern Mississippi Golden Eagle looked the part of the athletic linebacker he was revered to be two Aprils ago, and he notched the second and third regular-season sacks of his NFL career along the way. The 25-year-old sugared the gaps, pressured the quarterback and attacked the Chargers’ running game to the tune of nine tackles and three for a loss.
2. Revis Corners Allen: Sometimes, the deciding factor in a game is the one that goes unnoticed. Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis was just that on Sunday night, as his primary assignment, second-year receiver Keenan Allen, had to wait until 2:21 in the third quarter before being targeted in his jurisdiction. The three-yard completion was his only catch versus Revis and only his second of the game. The 6-foot-2, 211-pound Allen headed in with 72 catches for 762 yards and four scores on the season, but the California standout and the Chargers passing game were able to combine for just 163 yards by the time it was over.
3. Offense Clicks with Edelman: Brady went 28-of-44 passing for a seemingly quiet 317 yards, but Edelman played loud in the end result. The 2009 seventh-rounder kept the offense together by working the underneath and netting four first downs, and he finished with eight receptions for 141 yards and a touchdown. No. 11 now finds himself on pace for his second consecutive 100-catch, 1,000-yard season.
4. Gronkowski Gets No. 52: It was only fitting that Gronkowski got into the end zone against San Diego. The Patriots tight end eclipsed Chargers tight end Antontio Gates as the fastest at the position to reach 50 touchdowns in Week 9, and in Week 14, he added his 52nd receiving touchdown as the 12th-year veteran looked on. Gronkowski has a ways to go before he surpasses Gates’ 96 career receiving touchdowns, but while Gates finished Sunday with five catches for 34 yards, the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder finished with eight for 87 and the score.
5. Safeties Strong: Patriots free safety Devin McCourty had a 56-yard interception return for a touchdown nullified by an unneccessary roughness penalty on cornerback Brandon Browner, but the Rutgers Scarlet Knight was not tied to only one play over the duration. McCourty had a key third-down pass breakup in the direction of Gates, and he tacked on four tackles as the anchor of centerfield. All things considered, though, he was not alone; strong safety Patrick Chung stepped down to defend Gates and San Diego backfield, and Duron Harmon and Tavon Wilson also filtered in as third and fourth safeties to reinforce the back end. Chung and Harmon registered one stop each, while Wilson registered two and finalized New England’s win with a fourth-down collision with 1:17 to play.