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Bob Ryan

Take the ‘W’, don’t ask why

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By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / October 25, 2010

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SAN DIEGO -- A day like this, you get the W and then sprint for the plane before someone asks for a recount.

"It's good to win on a day when you don't play great,'' said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. "You've got to win those when you have the opportunity.''

OK, was this game won, or was it lost? You certainly could make a stronger case for the latter belief. The Cowboys have been getting all the national attention for squandering talent and handing games away, but folks out here might argue that the 'Boys only merit the silver, that no team has inflicted more damage on itself this season than their Chargers.

Yesterday's 23-20 Patriots victory might only be a footnote at the end of the season for them, but it very well may be Exhibit A in a postmortem explaining how a season was lost for the 2-5 Chargers. Their bumbling afternoon ended with Kris Brown hitting the right upright on a 50-yard field goal attempt; a try for the tying points that would have come from 45 yards was ruined when San Diego guard Louis Vasquez was called for a false start.

But what would you expect from a team whose four first-half turnovers included one ball left on the field by a wide receiver who had gone down without being hit, and another ball left unattended on an incomplete swing pass that was returned 63 yards to the Chargers' 8-yard line by the Patriots' Rob Ninkovich, who scooped it up after the New England bench yelled that it was a lateral and the ball thus was very much alive?

San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers threw for 336 yards. Brady threw for 159. It didn't matter. The W mattered, nothing else. If someone had told you the Patriots would not even crack 200 total net yards (179) in a road game, you'd have bet the house, the car, the big-screen TV, and tuition money for all your offspring that they'd lose the game. Well, they didn't. You might delve into semantics and claim they didn't win it, but they sure didn't lose it. The Chargers did.

"Weird'' doesn't begin to describe it. The Patriots led by what seemed to be a quite comfortable 23-6 with 11:27 left, but wound up not being entirely in control of their destiny after the Chargers went a rather easy 67 yards in 11 plays for a score, recovered an onside kick (making them 1 for 2 in that category on the afternoon), and then went another rather easy 60 yards in nine plays for a touchdown to make it 23-20 with 4:01 left. And when the Patriots failed on a fourth and 1 at their 49 just after the two-minute mark (BenJarvus Green-Ellis stuffed while trying to run left), the Chargers had the ball back with a great chance to tie it, or win it outright.

The decision to go for it on fourth and 1? It's not like we haven't seen that before.

"That's Coach Belichick,'' said safety Brandon Meriweather, who stayed out of trouble regarding helmet-to-helmet hits in this game. "He's always aggressive.''

"I'd go for it every time,'' said Brady.

"We did what we thought was right,'' said Coach Bill.

The Patriots forced those four first-half turnovers -- the other two were a legit fumble force (Kyle Arrington) and recovery (Jerod Mayo), plus a very athletic interception by rookie Devin McCourty. But all they could get as a direct result were 10 of their 13 points while stumbling to a 13-3 halftime lead.

Let's just say they weren't exactly moving the football.

"What offense?'' inquired Brady when asked to describe the first-half goings-on when the Patriots had the ball. "We had a hard time moving the ball at all. We couldn't get any rhythm.''

At the half, Brady was 6 of 16 for 35 yards and a 1-yard TD pass to Rob Gronkowski, a very nice goal-line target at 6 feet 6 inches. Truth is, Brady's delivery to an open Gronkowski was overthrown and forced the kid to make a nice grab. It was that kind of half.

The halftime chatter wasn't rah-rah-sis-boom-bah. It was about playing something resembling proper football in the second half.

"We just said that everyone needs to step up, and people made plays,'' said rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez, who then did his part on the key drive of the game by making a catch-and-run good for 18 yards on third and 8 at the Patriot 41 during a 17-play, 79-yard drive that consumed the first 8:35 of the second half. That drive, capped by a 1-yard touchdown by Green-Ellis, made it 20-3, and gave the Patriots a cushion that would be needed when the game dramatically turned in the fourth quarter.

The lengthy drive represented the only spark of true Patriots offense in this game, but there were some signs of defensive life, starting with the fact that the Chargers were barely able to run. And when you get down to it, the only reason there was angst at the end was that recovery of the onside kick. For that, you credit the Chargers. Once in a while those things are going to happen.

It comes down to this: There are only three teams in the National Football League who have only lost one game thus far, and the Patriots happen to be one of them. They also have recaptured that winning feel on the road, having won in Miami and San Diego this season.

Above all, they aren't beating themselves, the way teams such as Dallas and San Diego are doing.

"Coaching,'' said Brady. "From Day 1 in training camp, Coach Belichick preaches it: 'No bad football.' ''

You do something certifiably stupid, you start running those laps. It's not that complicated.

They came out here 4-1, and they flew home 5-1. If San Diego fans want to say it was gift-wrapped, who cares? That's San Diego's problem. The Patriots are already thinking about Minnesota.

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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