Bruschi on Tap: Five observations
Chargers made a lot of dumb mistakes, but credit the Patriots for capitalizing
Patriots report card: Patriots-Chargers
Tom Brady and the offense didn't get high marks Sunday, but what about the Patriots' defense? Mike Reiss' report card
1. San Diego a classy host to Patriots. This was a cross-country trip for the Patriots to face a team that was first in the NFL in offense and first in defense. The Chargers were coming back to their home stadium and you'd think that was the time they would put together a complete game. Instead, they did everything they could to hand the Patriots the game. They were gracious hosts. Rookie receiver Richard Goodman did not realize he was no longer in college and laid the ball on the ground, then fullback Jacob Hester fumbled a lateral. Even on cornerback Devin McCourty's interception, which was a great play, looked like Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was throwing and hoping his guy would come down with it. On the pass interference call on cornerback Antoine Cason that set up a second-quarter Patriots field goal, I thought that was an obvious uncatchable ball. These are examples to me why San Diego isn't taken seriously in this league, no matter what their record is or whether they're a No. 1 seed or a No. 2 seed or if it's a home playoff game. They aren't disciplined enough to play four quarters and beat a well-coached team like the Patriots. The Chargers made boneheaded mistakes, but credit to the Patriots for being alert enough to capitalize on those situations. You can't control the way other teams play. If they want to make mistakes and put a bow on the victory, you gladly accept and get to the plane.
2. Props to Pepper Johnson and players playing to the ball. You have to give Patriots defensive line coach Pepper Johnson credit. He did a great job on the sideline on the lateral play. He saw outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich run by the ball and alerted him, along with everyone else on the sideline, to get the ball. So Ninkovich laid on it. There were no Chargers around and James Sanders told him to get up and start running. Where were the Chargers? Most of them were watching. Coach Bill Belichick said it in his press conference, and he has said it many times in team meetings, the whistle is no longer relevant in the NFL. Players no longer play to the whistle. They play to the ball. If the ball is lying around, always assume it is live, get it and start running. Force the official to make the call. Heads-up coaching and heads-up playing.
3. Brandon Meriweather rebounds. Last week after he was fined $50,000, Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather talked about staying aggressive and not changing the player he was. Judging by his hit on Patrick Crayton in the first quarter, he meant it. He came up with the same aggressiveness and hit Crayton with the same force that he usually does. He lowered his target, which was different from the Todd Heap hit from last week. It was nowhere near the helmet area. It was a hit that could be put on the highlight reel as the proper way to do it. He targeted the sternum with his shoulder. To see Meriweather alter his game and still stay aggressive and be within the rules is a positive sign. Let's not forget that Meriweather was a Pro Bowl player last year. To succeed the Patriots need him to play at a high level consistently. If he continues to listen to the NFL in terms of changing his hitting style, and also the coaches -- Corwin Brown, Matt Patricia and Belichick -- he has the potential to be heading to more Pro Bowls in the future.
4. Patriots mentality is to keep foot on the gas. The Patriots led 20-6 early in the fourth quarter and upped the tempo with five straight passing plays -- Tom Brady to Deion Branch for 17 yards, Brady to Aaron Hernandez for 5, Brady to Branch for 6, Brady to Brandon Tate for 3, Brady to Hernandez for 24. In a lot of situations like that, many teams would be more likely to try to run the ball and eat time on the clock, playing more conservatively. But the Patriots wanted the touchdown. Their goal was to put the game away. You could tell how badly Brady wanted it with his frustration after missing Hernandez on the third-down conversion, so they settled for a 35-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski. Belichick often tells his offense that it has one job: score. Obvious, I know, but players love the aggressive approach.
5. Debating the fourth-and-1 call. I said it last year, and I feel the same way this year. I would have punted the ball. This fourth-down decision isn't going to draw the same type of debate as last year's fourth-and-2 against the Colts because the Patriots won the game and they were at midfield, not at the 28-yard line. I feel even stronger about it this year because the Patriots' defense is even better now. They showed last week against the Baltimore Ravens that in pressure situations, they can be called on to deliver. To their credit, they delivered with San Diego starting at midfield. That's the most you can ask for in that situation. Had the Patriots punted the ball and made the Chargers march the length of the field, I didn't think there was a way they could crack the 50. That's how strongly I feel about the defense right now. I'd like to see the defense be given the opportunity to win games, like they did against the Ravens when they had five consecutive stops in the fourth quarter and overtime. I think they are ready to be put in that situation. But one thing you can say about Belichick is he's consistent.
PATRIOTS 23, CHARGERS 20
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