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Patriots 35, Chargers 21

Stunning return

Brady, Patriots sharp again in home opener

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / September 19, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - Bill Belichick is known for frequently saying “it is what it is.’’

But the Patriots coach has another phrase he’s fond of: “they do what they do.’’

Yesterday afternoon, as the Patriots opened the home portion of their 2011 schedule against frequent nemesis San Diego, Belichick’s team did what it frequently does - execute at a high level offensively and make key defensive plays when needed. Conversely, Norv Turner’s Chargers did what they do, especially in September - look impressive for long stretches, then shoot themselves in the foot.

Tom Brady and the Patriots offense picked up right where they left off last Monday night, racking up 504 more yards, 423 through the air, and the defense forced four turnovers and had one impressive goal-line stand as New England posted a 35-21 win.

Brady set an NFL record with 940 passing yards in the first two games of the season.

It was the 10th straight regular-season game in which the team scored 30 or more points, dating to the Patriots’ win over Pittsburgh last November.

“I’m really proud of our football team today,’’ Belichick said. “We had a lot of guys step up. It was a good team win all the way around; we had good plays in all three phases of the game. We played hard for 60 minutes, and that [Chargers] team is a good football team. It’s good to win.’’

New England scored every time it touched the ball in the first half, building a 20-7 lead.

The Patriots’ first touchdown drive covered 92 yards in a dozen plays, and Brady hit five receivers on the possession, including a third-and-5 conversion to Chad Ochocinco for a 15-yard pickup that gave the Gillette Stadium crowd the opportunity to warmly welcome the veteran receiver - who took a couple of shots from former Patriots and current analysts Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison last week.

Brady found Aaron Hernandez on the next play for a 14-yard touchdown.

Ochocinco said it didn’t really register that the crowd went crazy after his catch, but he smiled in the locker room when he was told he’d been cheered so loudly.

San Diego wasted little time tying the score, converting two third-down chances, both to 6-foot-5-inch receiver Malcom Floyd. On the first, Philip Rivers put the ball up and despite having three members of the Patriots secondary - Ras-I Dowling, Leigh Bodden, and Sergio Brown - within a few feet of him, Floyd jumped over all of them and came down with the ball. Three plays later Rivers looked to Floyd again, and this time he beat Devin McCourty on the right sideline, again by using his height and wingspan to his advantage.

Ryan Mathews took it in from 10 yards for the touchdown; the second-year back averaged 5.3 yards on 12 carries.

New England settled for a chip-shot field goal from Stephen Gostkowski on its next possession after failing on three straight goal-to-go plays from the 4-yard line, two of them end zone passes.

But when the Chargers marched down the field on the ensuing possession, the Patriots’ defense was stout at its goal line, and the stop may have been the difference in the game.

A 21-yard catch-and-run by fullback Mike Tolbert gave San Diego a first down at the Patriots’ 5. Mathews then picked up 3 yards, and Tolbert was stopped for no gain on second down. Rivers dropped back to pass on third down, but had to scramble and seemed unaware of how close he was to the goal line. It appeared he could have taken the ball in for the touchdown, but he dropped to the turf just short of breaking the plane.

On fourth down, Rivers went back to Tolbert, the 5-9, 243-pound bowling ball, but he was forced outside and dragged down by Jerod Mayo.

“We’ve said since training camp that goal line has to be ours,’’ Mayo said. “Mental toughness shows up there.’’

“Huge,’’ Belichick said. “We spilled the ball outside, looked like we got a good push inside, and the runner never really got turned up because he ended up going sideways and we were able to make the play. It was a huge play.’’

The Patriots took over and went 99 yards for their second touchdown. Ochocinco had the big play on the drive, a 30-yard gain.

“This team is experienced enough to know . . . for the defense to do a good job like that, the last thing you want to do is not do your part,’’ guard Brian Waters said. “Some teams, you want to get a first down, maybe a couple, change field position, but here that’s not good enough.’’

The highlight of the game for pure entertainment value was Vince Wilfork’s first career interception with 19 seconds left in the half. The super-sized defensive tackle tipped a Rivers pass intended for Tolbert to himself, tapping it with his right hand and catching it with his left.

He took off down the sideline, the crowd roaring every step of the way. Just as Tolbert caught up to him, McCourty took down Tolbert, but he also tripped up his rumbling teammate in the process.

Wilfork held on to the ball as a memento, and when he was shown on the big screen sitting on the bench, he received another ovation from the crowd. Wilfork saluted the fans.

“I was joking a couple of weeks ago with Pep [defensive line coach Pepper Johnson], and I said, ‘I might end my career without an interception,’ ’’ a smiling Wilfork said. “It’s just one of those things. I made a play, and Bill always says if you take a chance you better make it. I guess I made it [today].’’

In the locker room, Wilfork said his 4.9-second speed in the 40-yard dash was on full display. “Maybe 4.8,’’ he quipped.

McCourty was flagged for an illegal block in the back on Tolbert, pushing New England back 15 yards from where Wilfork’s run ended. Brady got the ball with just nine seconds left in the half, but he completed two quick sideline passes to Deion Branch for a total of 18 yards, giving Gostkowski a 47-yard field goal try, which he made with no time left on the clock.

After a scoreless third quarter, San Diego twice closed to within a touchdown in the fourth. On the possession in-between those scores, however, Tolbert lost the ball when it was punched out by Mayo. Rob Ninkovich fell on it.

With San Diego trailing, 28-21, a neutral-zone penalty on second and 10 by defensive tackle Cam Thomas pushed the Patriots ahead 5 yards. On the next play, Brady handed off to BenJarvus Green-Ellis with just under two minutes left, and Green-Ellis ran over left tackle for a 16-yard touchdown, effectively shutting the door on a Chargers comeback.

Although the New England defense had its moments, it also still has things to review this week: namely Rivers completing 29 of 40 passes, and the Chargers converting 10 of 12 third-down chances. Last week in Miami, the Patriots stopped the Dolphins on 12 of 14 such opportunities.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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