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These Patriots are lucky and good

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By Christopher L. Gasper
October 25, 2010

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SAN DIEGO — The snap judgment this morning is that the Patriots got lucky on the Left Coast yesterday. That they had horseshoes inside their helmets, and rabbits’ feet tucked into their cleats after surviving a furious fourth-quarter rally by the San Diego Chargers.

There was certainly some good fortune involved in holding on for dear life and a 23-20 victory over the Chargers yesterday at Qualcomm Stadium, but good teams make their own luck. At 5-1 the Patriots are a good team, and they’re getting better, especially on defense.

Coach Bill Belichick’s Soldiers of Fortune benefited from the residue of design and San Diego’s self-inflicted wounds, which, honestly, were one and the same.

The Patriots were aware of the explosiveness of the Chargers’ passing game. Philip Rivers had channeled Dan Fouts and the Air Coryell-era Chargers. San Diego entered yesterday’s game with the top-rated passing attack in the NFL (316.2 yards per game) and with 35 pass plays of 20 yards or more.

Through the first three quarters, the Patriots’ defense held the Chargers to just one pass play of more than 20 yards, a 25-yard completion to Richard Goodman, which was followed by Goodman putting the ball down to celebrate his reception, only to realize he had just fumbled because he never had been touched down.

That was typical for the Chargers, who turned the ball over on four straight first-half possessions. This year’s Bolts are dolts who beat themselves, and Belichick knew it.

The Chargers are the NFL’s version of a Southern California natural disaster. The Patriots’ defensive game plan was clear — make Rivers and the Chargers beat them, because if the Patriots didn’t get beat deep, like they did here two years ago, then the Chargers were likely to beat themselves.

“All the coaches coming into this game were just saying, ‘Make them earn it,’ ’’ said cornerback Kyle Arrington. “That’s what we tried to do. They gave us a couple of plays. We take advantage of it. I think we definitely did make them earn it. I think we did a good job of that.’’

The one time the Chargers tried to go deep to Patrick Crayton, rookie Devin McCourty made a spectacular interception. San Diego’s scoring drives were 11, 12, 11, and nine plays. The Patriots bent over backward, but they didn’t break. The Chargers did.

Defensively, the effort was far from a work of art for the Patriots. When Rivers and Co. went no-huddle, they were able to move the ball with ease. But the Patriots stuck to the plan to the bitter end. On third and 10 from the Patriots’ 35 with 1:14 left, Rivers couldn’t find an open receiver, had to scramble to his right, and finally hit Antonio Gates, who was tackled by rookie safety Sergio Brown 2 yards shy of a first down. San Diego chose to attempt a tying field goal, and imploded again with a penalty that turned a 45-yarder into a 50-yarder.

“We knew we had to contain their passing game downfield,’’ said Vince Wilfork. “I think our secondary did a [heck] of a job with that. My hat goes off to those guys. Bill challenged those guys. We challenged them. We basically told them you got to handle those deep posts and those 20-yard, 30-yard routes, and we’ll handle the run game . . . I tip my hat to these guys. They played their butt off, and as a defense we played our butt off.

“As a defense we still can learn, we’ll keep building. These younger guys will keep getting older. The more games they play the better they’ll get. We’re 5-1 right now. We can’t complain right now. We’re going back home with a W.’’

That would not have been the case last year. This is the type of game and the type of lead (20-3 at the start of the fourth) that the Patriots would have lost last season because of busted coverages or panic penalties.

Yes, San Diego scored on its first three possessions of the second half and could have been 4 for 4 if Louis Vasquez didn’t get antsy and earn a false start that turned Kris Brown’s ill-fated field goal attempt into a 50-yarder.

Yes, Rivers ended up with a 336-yard day, but it took 50 throws to do it. Flingin’ Philip was 20 of 28 for 213 yards and a touchdown in the second half, but his leading receiver on the day was running back Darren Sproles (nine catches for 70 yards). In the second half, Rivers was sacked twice and often forced to hold the ball because of New England’s coverage.

With the game on the line Belichick once again elected to eschew his defense, going for it on fourth and 1 from his 49.

Now, the luck part for the Patriots is that the Chargers were playing without starting receivers Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee and that Gates, who didn’t have a catch through three-plus quarters, was clearly hobbled with a toe injury. They caught the Chargers at a good time. That was their good fortune.

However, if the Patriots’ offense had been more productive with the Chargers’ offensive miscues in the first half — 38 yards of total offense — then the defense wouldn’t have had the misfortune of finding itself in a do-or-die scenario in the final 1:55 with the Chargers taking over at New England’s 47.

On the other hand, it was a scenario they were not afraid to be in.

“We already knew what time it was,’’ said safety Brandon Meriweather. “It was on us, just like it has been for the whole season. Defense has to stand up and be a backbone.’’

Meriweather was asked if the defense felt it got away with one. His answer spoke both the truth and volumes.

“No, we feel like we’re a good team,’’ he said.

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