For the second time in a week, the Patriots defense lined up on their own 1-yard line for a pivotal fourth down. The Chargers trailed 10-7, and a score here would be a major momentum shift in a back and forth offensive shootout.
Instead, when Chargers running back Mike Tolbert took the handoff and cut right to the outside, he was stopped short by Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo. The Patriots offense took over, marching down the field for a 99-yard touchdown drive.
Tom Brady and the offense had another historic evening, as Brady went 31 for 40 for 423 yards and 3 touchdowns. The New England quarterback had his third career 400-yard game, finishing with 35, 473 career passing yard—ahead of Jim Kelly for 17th place all-time. The Pats offense also set a franchise record with 23 passing first downs as New England triumphed 35-21, starting the season 2-0.
Highlighting the defensive heroics on the goal line may be misleading, though—the Patriots defense was far from spectacular against San Diego. The Patriots conceded a dismal 10 out of 12 third down conversions, as the Chargers exposed a defense that was last in the league in the statistic last season.
The defensive line was typically mediocre, with Rivers sacked only twice and the Chargers running backs stopped for losses on another two plays. The defense did manage two interceptions in the game, including an impressive solo effort from defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. Wilfork backed off the line as Rivers dropped to pass, reading the quarterback’s eyes and tipping the attempt into the air before snagging it and rumbling for a 28-yard return.
The secondary looked porous otherwise, allowing 378 yards to Rivers and his receivers. Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson gave Devin McCourty fits all evening, outrunning and outmuscling the defender on his way to a 10 catch, 172-yard game with two touchdowns.
Where the Patriots defense excelled, incidentally, was when the Chargers were inside or near to the red zone. The Patriots forced three San Diego turnovers within the 35-yard line, including another Philip Rivers interception, this one by Sergio Brown.
If the defense was full of question marks before the evening, there may be even more now—at least seven Patriots needed medical attention during the game, five of which were defensive players. Safety Patrick Chung left the game temporarily and was replaced by James Ihedigbo, who also went down injured. Cornerbacks Ras-I Dowling and Kyle Arrington also took knocks, and so did defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. The new Patriot lineman finished the game without a tackle or any meaningful involvement.
Another new face did have an impact, though. After a week in which he was heavily criticized, Patriots wide receiver Chad Ochocinco had a decent showing, catching two passes for 45 yards. While that’s only one more reception than last game, he looked sharp, and was greeted with a raucous ovation after his first catch, a third down play on which he was interfered.
The Patriots weren’t forced to punt in the first half and scored on each of their first four drives, entering the half up 20-7. The killer instinct on offense was visible again, particularly after Wilfork’s second quarter interception. Brady got the ball with nine seconds left and no timeouts, starting on the 47-yard line. The Chargers dropped off deep, playing conservatively, and Brady promptly fired a pass to Deion Branch for 11 yards before the receiver ducked out of bounds. Time elapsed: two seconds. So Brady did it again, finding Branch for another seven yards. He ducked out of bounds at the 29-yard line, and Stephen Gostkowski knocked in a 47-yard field goal as time ran out in the half.
Branch had a big day, leading all Patriots receivers with eight receptions for 129 yards. The tight end corps continued to see tons of actions, with Hernandez and Gronkowski combining for 11 catches, 148 yards and 3 touchdowns. Other than aforementioned Welker and Ochocinco, running backs Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead both caught passes.
The rushing game was efficient if not memorable. Green-Ellis took 17 carries for 70 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter. Rookie Stevan Ridley also saw some actions, taking two carries for nine yards.
The Patriots are also hoping to get new acquisition Mark Anderson more involved, and on the final Chargers drive of the game, he burst through the line, knocking a fumble loose from Rivers, which Kevin Love recovered.