In the Week 14 preview, we discussed the Chargers issues with stopping the run and rushing the passer, which appeared to be a huge advantage for the New England offense. We also talked about the Chargers explosive passing game but lack of running game and how they would fare against an excellent Patriots defense. Not everything worked out the way I predicted, but the Patriots defense continued their dominant ways and the offense eventually figured things out. Give credit to the Chargers defense, who clearly came to play. Let's take a look at what went right and what went wrong on Sunday night.
When the Patriots Passed:
The final stats looked pretty good, but the Chargers definitely made the Patriots earn their yardage and points. Tom Brady was 28 of 44 (64%) for 310 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, which looks all well and good, but it could have been better. On the interception, Brady was getting hit and he underthrew a wide open Rob Gronkowski in the end zone. Brady needs to either learn to take the sack in that situation or truly let it fly and let Gronk go up and get it. Nate Solder was awful Sunday night, basically being used as a turnstile by Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney. Solder needs to get his issues with speed rushers resolved asap with the playoffs right around the corner. Julian Edelman had an excellent game, picking up 141 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions. Edelman' 69-yard touchdown catch was the biggest play of the game and it came at the perfect time- the fourth quarter. That touchdown, with the way the New England defense was playing, essentially put the game away. Rob Gronkowski was his typical dominant self, making eight catches for 87 yards and a touchdown. Gronkowski is only the fourth tight end to accumulate four-ten touchdown seasons in NFL history, and he's only in his fifth season. If he didn't get hurt last year, he would have easily hit the double digit mark again. It's fun to watch one of the greatest ever at the tight end position. Overall, the passing game had an average night due to protection issues but like great teams do, they figured it out and made the plays they needed to make to win the game, which isn't easy to do on the road vs. a quality opponent like the Chargers.
When the Patriots Ran:
The Chargers came into Sunday night with a run defense that was porous, but they stepped up against the Patriots. New England ran the ball 28 times for 87 yards, an average of 3.1 yards per carry. Although the average wasn't strong, the fact that they stayed with it setup play-action and ultimately resulted in Julian Edelman' 69 yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. LeGarrette Blount led the way with 22 carries for 66 yards, but 23 of those yards came in the fourth quarter with under six minutes to go, which was a dagger for the Chargers. One thing that didn't make sense was the slow developing runs off tackle; they just don't work with Blount and Josh McDaniels continues to force it. Tom Brady had a couple big runs for first downs on third and short, which extended drives and led to scores. Jonas Gray was once again frozen out, only picking up nine yards on two carries. With the off-tackle runs the Patriots were so intent on running, it would make more sense to use Gray because he is faster to the hole than Blount. Blount is the more patient runner and is considerably better inside. New England needs to continue to run 25-30 times per game to keep defenses off balance heading into final three games and the playoffs.
When the Chargers Passed:
Philip Rivers has been awesome in 2014, but Sunday night was the first night he faced a secondary like the Patriots. Yes, he faced the Seahawks, but the Patriots secondary is better than Seattle, and that was proven this week. Darrelle Revis continued his dominant play, locking down second-year receiver Keenan Allen for two catches and three yards. Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick used a mix of defenders to control All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates, a player that has given them tons of problems in past meetings. New England held the Chargers offense to 166 yards passing, which is incredible considering Rivers numbers coming into the game. Brandon Browner was mostly on Malcom Floyd, who scored the only offensive touchdown of the night for the Chargers. Browner also made a great play to break up a pass that should have resulted in a interception return for Devin McCourty, but the refs made a huge blunder and called Browner for helmet-to-helmet hit and the play resulted in a 15 yard penalty instead of a touchdown. It's about time to follow the lead of college football and start to review these calls.
When the Chargers Ran:
The Chargers ran the ball 17 times for 51 yards, averaging the same 3.1 yards per carry as New England. Ryan Matthews carried the ball 11 times for 44 yards, which was decent, but of course, he was injured on the moronic tripping penalty by Kyle Arrington and he never got back to running like he had in the first quarter. New England also stiffened up defensively after they gave up some big runs, so the Chargers completely abandoned the run and let Philip Rivers try to win on his own. Bad idea. The Chargers have struggled in the running game all year and it may prove to be their ultimate downfall. They were excited to get Ryan Matthews back, who is very talented, but the Chargers coaches and front office are only fooling themselves if they think he's the answer. Brandon Oliver started off pretty good, but after the rest of the league got tape on him, he's been ineffective. San Diego needs to address their offensive line too because they're a major part of the problem.
It was a strong night for the Patriots special teams units, and that was a big reason why they won the game. Stephen Gostkowski was three-for-three on field goals, which is good to see after his big miss in Green Bay last week. The play that really stood out was the blocked punt by Brandon Bolden, a play that came at a time when New England needed some momentum. Ryan Allen also had a strong night in the punting game, averaging 49.4 yards on five punts; his hang time gave special teams demon Matt Slater time to get down and make immediate stops. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola didn't do much in the return game, but they also didn't give up an fumbles or make poor decisions, which is half the battle. The Chargers didn't attempt any field goals and had an injury occur on the blocked punt (Mike Scifres was out for the remainder of the game) but Nick Novak did a nice job filling in, averaging 40 yards on six punts.
Mike McCoy did a good job preparing his defense for the explosive Patriots offense, but on the other side of the ball, the Chargers were completely inept. They also fell into the same trap New England did vs. Green Bay- throwing to much and not trying to at least establish the run. Even teams with poor run games have to show the defense they're willing to try or the defense can simply sit back and cover, which is New England' strength. The Patriots coaching staff did an excellent job preparing a short-handed front seven for a huge game on the road. Akeem Ayers looks like he's played in the New England defense for years, which is a testament to good coaching and preparation. Josh McDaniels, who I'll admit does frustrate me at times, stuck with the run even though it was struggling and it paid off at the end of the fourth quarter when Blount broke his 23-yard nail-in-the-coffin run.