By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — There were times on Sunday when the Patriots appeared to be in total control of the football game. There were other times when they allowed the Chargers to hang around a bit more than they would have liked.
The end result was a win — by a score of 21-13 — but it didn’t come easy. Nobody in the Patriots’ locker room felt particularly great about the overall 60-minute performance of the team, but they all felt very good about entering their bye week with a 6-2 record.
It was far from perfect, but in the NFL, you take wins any way you can get them. Here are the Four Ups and Four Downs from Sunday at Gillette.
Rex Burkhead, James White
Rex Burkhead, the fifth-year running back took a major step toward earning the title of Mostly Random NFL Player Plucked By Bill Belichick To Have Greatest Season Of Career With Patriots. (That’s a real title, by the way. Don’t Google it.)
He caught seven passes on Sunday, more than any other Patriot, for 68 yards. And Tom Brady was a perfect 7-for-7 on passes thrown Burkhead’s way. He was reliable, showed good hands, sufficient speed, and great toughness to finish plays and help the Patriots move the football down the field. He picked up three first downs on the day and also ran four times for 15 yards.
James White, meanwhile, continued his ascent as one of the most reliable options out of the backfield for Brady and in the entire NFL. He led the Patriots in receiving yards with 85 on five receptions, including a 27-yard gain on a third-and-11 on the Patriots’ lone touchdown drive, as well as an 11-yard catch-and-run on a third-and-10 and a 25-yard catch on a third-and-2 on a field goal drive.
Punt And Kick Coverage
It’s not always the most exciting topic, but the Patriots’ coverage on kicks and punts is getting too good to ignore.
The Chargers attempted to return four kickoffs; not once did they return the ball to the 25-yard line. Instead, those drives began at their own 20-yard line, their own 21-yard line, and twice on their own 15-yard line.
And the punt coverage pulled off a rare feat, tackling Travis Benjamin just inside the goal line for a safety. It was the first safety on a punt return in the entire NFL since 2003, and it ended up being perhaps the key play of the game, as it not only put two points on the board for the Patriots but also set them up with a bonus possession, which they turned into a field goal.
Those five points, and the lost possession for Los Angeles, proved crucial.
It won’t be remembered as one of the greatest games of the quarterback’s career. But it was nevertheless an example of how versatile he can be. He didn’t make many throws to the boundaries, instead utilizing a short passing game which saw him spread the ball to eight different receivers. Five of them had at least five receptions.
Brady also displayed some impressive mobility, allowing him to slide around a very busy pocket while keeping his eyes down the field.
He finished 32-for-47 for 333 yards, which boosts his NFL-best passing yards per game number from 315.4 to 317.6. Entering Sunday, nobody in the NFL was even close; Alex Smith ranked second at 282.7.
At 40 years old, you’d think the midseason bye week would be vitally important to Brady. But he looked just as strong in Week 8 as he did in Week 1.
Third downs really decided this game. The Patriots went 9-for-19, while the Chargers went 3-for-9.
For the Patriots, the stops began on the very first drive, when Kyle Van Noy made a strong tackle of Antonio Gates a yard short of the first down to force a Los Angeles 51-yard field goal attempt, which was no good. Early in the second quarter, Elandon Roberts and Patrick Chung combined to stuff Branden Oliver on third-and-2. On another third-and-2 late in the second quarter, the Patriots defended a pass that fell incomplete, allowing New England’s offense to tack on a field goal before halftime.
And in the fourth quarter when the Patriots’ lead shrunk to five points, the defense forced a Los Angeles punt and picked off Philip Rivers at the goal line to seal the win.
Early Run Defense
The Patriots fell behind 7-0 early in this game when they allowed Melvin Gordon to burst through a hole and sprint untouched for 87 yards up the right sideline. It was the longest run ever against a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team, and it wasn’t anything particularly special. Safety Duron Harmon looked like he guessed that Gordon would cut it inside, and just as Harmon spun to the inside, Gordon broke to the outside.
It was the type of huge play the Patriots’ defense has been doing a better job of eliminating over the past few weeks. But now it’s back to the drawing board.
It’s kind of an easy one when the kicker misses a pair of 43-yarders — kicks that would have led to the game being out of reach relatively early in the fourth quarter.
Gostkowski missed a 43-yarder to open the second half, thus killing the Patriots’ “dreaded double score” that they use to flip games on their head. And with under 10 minutes left in the game, he pushed another 43-yarder, a kick which would have put the Patriots up by 14 on a day when the Chargers couldn’t really score. The miss seemed to inject some life into the Chargers, who drove up the field and scored a touchdown to make things interesting late.
They were the second and third misses of the year for Gostkowski, who did go 4-for-6 on the day and accounted for 13 of the Patriots’ 21 points. His situation is probably not as bad as it will be made out to be, bus misses are nevertheless misses, and he has given himself some room to improve for the second half of the season.
Red Zone Offense
The Patriots made four trips into the red zone, and they made it into the end zone just once. They twice had to settle for field goals from inside the 10-yard line.
They were able to get away with it in this game, because L.A.’s offense wasn’t functioning particularly well. But those missed opportunities for points are not really accepted with a shrug inside the offices of Gillette Stadium. The Patriots know they need to be better than they were on Sunday in that department.
“We didn’t finish them off. I think we just have to do a better job of that. I know I’ve said that about 100 times this year, but it’s tough. I mean, we’re trying. It’s just the execution is coming up a little short in critical times,” Brady said. “We’re not scoring as many points as we’re capable of scoring. I know that. I wish there was a simple answer for it, and the simple word would be execution. I mean, it’s just throwing and catching and blocking and running and doing all those things, staying on track in the red area, but we have more opportunity out there. I mean, we know it. We just haven’t done a great job finishing off the last three or four weeks, but hopefully we’re going to get back to it, and I’m sure we’ll watch a lot of tape and try to evaluate a lot of things that we’ve done and try to build on those things. I wish it would be better, but we’re not. But, we’ll just keep going after it.”
Chris Hogan had already been dealing with injured ribs, and how he’s got an injured shoulder to add to the list. THe receiver absorbed a heavy hit over the middle by linebacker Hayes Pullard with 3:30 left in the game.
Hogan had his arm in a sling after the game, and while the bye week might help, he might need more than a couple of weeks to recover from whatever it might be that’s ailing him. With five catches for 60 yards on Sunday, he upped his season totals to 33 receptions for 438 yards, and he’s no doubt a very important member of the offense. If he’s forced to miss any time, it’ll be a big hit.