THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

Some reason to be charged up about this one

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / October 24, 2010

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SAN DIEGO — Like you were really feeling great about the Patriots early in the fourth quarter, right?

C’mon, be honest. After the Ravens kicked a field goal to make it 20-10, you weren’t thinking good thoughts. You were thinking what I was thinking — that we all were facing the reality that the Patriots still didn’t have a defense capable of getting into anything resembling a lock-down mode and they just weren’t good enough to beat the true quality teams, even at home. You were thinking 9-7 would be a real achievement.

But now, all bets are off. It’s an absolutely insane season in the NFL. As we hit Week 7, there are no undefeated teams, whereas a year ago Indianapolis and New Orleans combined to start 27-0. The Patriots are one of three teams with one loss. Fourteen teams have two losses and six have three. The 1-4 Cowboys and the 1-5 49ers are not out of their division races.

Pittsburgh and the Jets are consensus co-No. 1s, but there’s a lot of football to be played, and now that the Patriots have come from behind to defeat Baltimore, they have to be included in the Super Bowl discussion.

They have a very interesting game today against a San Diego team no one knows how to assess. The Chargers lead the league in offense (432.7 yards per) and defense (255.2). But they’re 2-4.

Philip Rivers is on pace to throw for 77 million yards (OK, 5,000-plus). He is airing it out like a young Dan Marino or a middle-aged Peyton Manning. You want to talk vertical passing game? He has completed 35 passes for gains of 20 yards or more. Sid Gillman and Don Coryell would be beaming. Tom Brady, in case you’re wondering, has completed five such passes.

Just think if Rivers had Vincent Jackson. He will have him, actually, but the holdout receiver won’t be eligible until Nov. 28.

So we will find out if the Patriots defense really has discovered something, or if its success in the fourth period and overtime against the Ravens — two first downs and 77 total yards — was a cruel tease.

There was a legitimate rivalry between these teams for a few years, but that should all be in the past. The Chargers did not take that playoff loss Jan. 14., 2007, very well. LaDainian Tomlinson dissed Bill Belichick as having a minimal amount of class. And then poor Marty Schottenheimer nearly had his head taken off by Brady, who manufactured a slight out of a comment that was meant to be sympathetic. Shawne Merriman usually had something to say, too, but he, like Tomlinson, is no longer a Charger.

Now it’s strictly about the football and the challenge presented by a team that puts up yardage and holds down opponents, yet loses games because, among other things, it has had abysmal special teams coverage (two kickoffs and a punt have been run back).

A thorough reading of the tea leaves indicates that the great Antonio Gates, generally regarded as the league’s best tight end, will play after missing several practices this week with a toe injury. The 30-year old former college basketball star at Kent State has caught 10 of those 35 Rivers passes for 20-plus yards.

Gates had a spectacular game against the Patriots back in 2005, catching six passes for 108 yards in a 41-17 Chargers rout, but since then, the Patriots have held him reasonably in check. Still, the Patriots would feel a lot more comfortable if he were to remain on the sideline.

All things considered, the Patriots have to be thrilled about being 4-1 since they have had to reinvent themselves on the fly on offense and defense. I rather doubt anyone would have been thrilled about playing without Randy Moss and Kevin Faulk, but that’s the reality.

Trust me. You will not find the name of Danny Woodhead in any preseason magazine. But the little guy (who acknowledges being 5-7 3/4 no matter what the program says) has made a significant contribution to the offense since being picked up off waivers from the Jets. The folks back home in North Platte, Neb., and Chadron State must be agog over what’s been going on.

Defensively, the Patriots secondary has been in flux, the names and faces coming and going all the time. And how about Brandon Deaderick? It’s always rewarding when a seventh-round draft pick helps you win a game.

You get the idea that Coach Bill likes this team, that he appreciates its spunk, and that what transpired last Sunday in that comeback victory over a Baltimore team many people think is the league’s best was a reflection of good team work ethic and championship attitude.

And if you listened closely, you heard talk about unity and people being on the same page, and the obvious assumption was that a certain wide receiver of note had been something of a deviant. There’s more to offensive pigskin life than just “stretching the field.’’

But it would be wise for everyone to take a deep breath and recall the queasy feeling we all had at 20-10, Ravens. Nearly two quarters of good play is not a meaningful enough sample for us to be sure about anything. We all need to see a lot more.

This ought to be a fasten-the-seat-belt game in which I would be inclined to take the over (47, last I looked). Now, if it goes the wrong way, it’s just an L, not a catastrophe. Nobody’s going to run away from anybody in this year’s NFL.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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