The Patriots are in an unfamiliar place. Never under Bill Belichick have they suffered two losses in the same year of 20 or more points. But that's where New England stands after its 30-10 loss to San Diego on Sunday night that capped off the club's nine-day road trip.
"We're upset about the loss, but we're going to move on and we're going to get better this week," said quarterback Matt Cassel. "We're going to continue to work hard."
The breakdowns were everywhere Sunday, with the offense and defense sharing the blame for the club's first October loss since 2005. It was simple: The Chargers made the big plays that are usually so characteristic of the Patriots.
"We weren't able to make the plays and they made them," said Belichick. "That's why they won tonight. They made more than we did, and made them down there on the goal line."
The goal line, where the Pats offense faltered on four straight downs from the Chargers' 1-yard line in the third quarter. A touchdown would have cut San Diego's advantage to 17-10.
"That was a big series in the game that would have put us within a score and it didn't happen," said Cassel. "It's just part of football, unfortunately."
But while it's easy to point fingers offensively at the up-and-down campaign of Cassel, who completed 57.9 percent of his passes against San Diego with one interception and no touchdowns, the running game hasn't done its part to take pressure off the inexperienced quarterback.
In fact, it hasn't exactly been a rousing start to the season for running back Laurence Maroney. Coming off a late-season surge where he rushed for more than 100 yards in four of the last six games in 2007, many hoped the former first-round pick had established himself as the team's lead back entering his third season.
But that hasn't been the case thus far. Maroney appeared to hit a low point two weeks ago in a 30-21 win over San Francisco, a game in which he carried 10 times for just 26 yards. At one point during the second half, he gingerly ran out of bounds about a yard shy of the first down when there appeared to be ample opportunity to pass the stick before doing so.
CBS cameras caught a conversation between Maroney and running backs coach Ivan Fears on the sideline where it appeared the coach was voicing some displeasure with his supposed top back.
"They shot that? I didn't see that part," Maroney said with a smile. "He really wasn't yelling. I don't know what he was saying, I really don't remember. He wasn't yelling though."
While Maroney wasn't overly concerned with any strife with his coaches, the 2006 first-round pick did admit that he's dealing with some problems that he's trying to overcome.
"I have my issues. There's reasons. I'd rather not speak about them, but there are reasons," Maroney said when asked specifically about the play he ran out of bounds.
Maroney missed the Miami game last month with a shoulder injury he suffered against the Jets in Week 2, and then he sat out Sunday's loss to the Chargers with a shoulder ailment.
When asked in the days leading up to Sunday night's big AFC battle at San Diego if the shoulder was the issue he referred to, Maroney said no. "Not really. Even if you hit it on the head I'd tell you no," he added.
He said it was something he'd never dealt with before, which would seem to eliminate injury as a possibility.
"Like I said, I have issues right now but I'm trying to work through them the best I can and trying to do the best I can with my problems," Maroney said.
"Most definitely because people really don't know what it is and what you're dealing with," Maroney added when asked if he felt it was important to shut out the fans' criticism. "All they know is what you put out there on the TV. So you're going to get criticism until they find out what the problem is. I really don't pay any attention. I just keep doing what I'm doing and try to make the best of it.
"All I can say (is) I'm trying. That's all I can do no matter what the media says, how they perceive me, how the fans perceive me. I'm trying. At the end of the day, that's all I can do. If I was out here not trying then that's one thing but I'm actually out here trying to do what I can do. So I really don't care what everybody else says. The coaches know the issue, I know the issue and we're just trying to make the issue better if we can."
When the "issues" will be resolved and when/if Maroney may ever reach his potential for the Patriots is anyone's guess. He might get another chance to do it this coming Monday night in another key AFC battle against the Broncos in Foxborough. Whatever's going on, the team needs Maroney to get back to what he's paid to do -- make plays on the football field for an offense that could use a backfield boost as New England continues to evolve without quarterback Tom Brady.
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