Commentary

Chargers squander red-zone opportunities

The Chargers' offense had plenty of chances to reach the end zone, but the Patriots rose to the test when needed, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: January 20, 2008
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the San Diego Chargers gather Monday to review videotape of Sunday's 21-12 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, there are certain to be the normal regrets and recriminations about plays not made and opportunities squandered.

But when the Chargers' offense sees its lackluster performance in the red zone -- three trips, no touchdowns -- the players likely will feel downright nauseous.

"It just makes you want to [vomit]," said Chargers tailback Michael Turner. "Really, more than anything else probably, it was the biggest difference in the game."

The fact that the Chargers were forced to settle for four Nate Kaeding field goals, despite having 11 snaps inside the Patriots' 20-yard line and eight plays inside the 10-yard line, was out of character for both teams.

[+] EnlargePats defense
Paul Jasienski/Getty ImagesWhen they needed to, the Patriots defense managed to bury the Chargers' attack.

During the regular season, the Chargers scored touchdowns on 29 of their 52 red zone possessions; that 55.8 percent success rate was 11th-best in the league. On the flip side, a spotty New England defense surrendered touchdowns on 24 of its opponents' 41 red zone trips, the NFL's sixth-worst mark.

But the Patriots' defense came up big Sunday, stopping the Chargers on drives that reached the 8-, 5-, and 6-yard lines. The Chargers also had a drive that got to the New England 22 on which they settled for three points.

Certainly the absence of star tailback LaDainian Tomlinson, who played portions of only two series before retiring for good to the sideline with a sprained medial collateral ligament, was a detriment to the San Diego offense.

Tomlinson, who had two carries for five yards and one catch for one yard, spent most of the game huddled in a parka, looking a lot like the oft-killed Kenny from "South Park" fame. And tight end Antonio Gates, who is characteristically a force in the red zone, was slowed for a second straight playoff game with a dislocated toe, making him once again more a decoy than a destroyer.

But as much as any of San Diego's offensive shortcomings, it was the Patriots' knack for making timely plays that kept their end zone unsullied.

"Plain and simple, they were just better than us down there, you know?" said quarterback Philip Rivers, who performed admirably despite a sprained left medial collateral ligament and a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. "That's what it came down to. It's frustrating, but we had our chances, and we left a lot of points out there."

For the game, Rivers completed 19 of 37 passes for 211 yards, with two interceptions. While those numbers appear to be pretty ordinary, Rivers authored some huge throws in difficult situations. But the fourth-year veteran completed just three of his six red zone attempts for 20 yards. On the ground, the Chargers managed only three yards on five carries inside New England's 20-yard line.

The closest the Chargers came to scoring a TD came late in the first quarter, when wide receiver Chris Chambers made a tough catch deep in the end zone on an eight-yard pass, but was beyond the end line.

Then trailing 14-9 in the third quarter, San Diego reached the New England 4-yard line. But on a third-and-1 play, Patriots' inside linebacker Junior Seau, who played the first 13 seasons of his 18-year career in a Chargers' uniform, knifed though untouched to drop Turner for a 2-yard loss.

Based on the formation, with the San Diego fullback offset, the Patriots seemed to recognize in advance the play-call on the run by Turner. New England coordinator Dean Pees called for a maneuver in which Seau shot the inside gap and broke clean into the backfield.

For a Pats' defense that permitted too many red zone scores on the ground for much of the season, Sunday's performance was especially gratifying.

"Today was maybe our turn to win a game," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "Our red- zone defense hasn't always been where we wanted it to be. But when we needed it today, it was there."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.