FOXBORO — Very little appeared easy for the Patriots through the first half of the season, but they gutted through a fourth consecutive victory today with a 21-13 takedown of the Chargers at Gillette Stadium.
And now the Patriots (6-2) will enter the bye week with the best record in the AFC. They certainly need the break, as their star-studded lineup has already lost Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower for the season, Stephon Gilmore, Malcom Brown and Eric Rowe for a shorter stretch and finished today’s showdown without Marcus Cannon and Chris Hogan.
Tom Brady was 32-of-47 for 333 yards and a touchdown as the Patriots claimed their fourth one-possession victory of the season. He was particularly fond of James White (five catches for 85 yards, including four third-down receptions for 60 yards), Rex Burkhead (seven catches, 68 yards), Hogan (five catches, 60 yards), Rob Gronkowski (five catches, 57 yards, one touchdown) and Brandin Cooks (five catches, 26 yards). Dion Lewis led the ground attack with 16 carries for 44 yards.
The Patriots’ undermanned defense started on a high note when Lawrence Guy appeared to block Nick Novak’s 51-yard field-goal bid to thwart the Chargers’ opening drive. However, the lack of man power — they didn’t have Hightower (torn pectoral muscle), Brown (ankle), Gilmore (concussion) or Rowe (groin) — likely doomed their second series.
Melvin Gordon raced around Cassius Marsh’s edge and unleashed a nifty cutback to find a cavernous hole on his way to an 87-yard touchdown and 7-0 lead. It was the longest run ever yielded by Bill Belichick’s Patriots, and it spurred Gordon to a 132-yard day.
Brady and the offense rebounded from an opening three-and-out for a much more fruitful second jaunt, which traversed 77 yards over 14 plays. Brady was 3-of-3 for 41 yards on third down, and a play-action fake to Mike Gillislee in a goal-line package fooled the Chargers, leaving Gronkowski alone on a crossing pattern for a 2-yard touchdown reception that tied it, 7-7, on the first play of the second quarter.
The Patriots’ special teamers continued to steal the show, as Ryan Allen sent a 54-yard punt to Travis Benjamin, who recovered his own muff, ran in the wrong direction, lost 8 yards and was tracked down in the end zone by Brandon King, Jonathan Jones and Matthew Slater for a safety and 9-7 advantage.
The offense added to the edge with its ensuing possession, and they gambled on fourth down to do it. Mike Gillislee, who entered the day 7-of-14 on runs when the Patriots have needed a yard to convert, kept that pace intact. He was stuffed on third-and-1 but got 8 yards on fourth-and-1 from the Chargers’ 28-yard line. But the Patriots ultimately settled for Stephen Gostkowski’s 25-yard field goal to push the lead to 12-7.
Brady kept the momentum alive with an impressive march before halftime. The drive started at the 9-yard line with 2:00 remaining, and Brady completed his first three passes for 54 yards before the final two hit the dirt. Gostkowski’s 36-yard field goal made it 15-7 with 20 seconds to go, which marked the sixth time this season the Patriots have scored in the final minute of the opening half.
Even though Gordon got off to a terrific start with eight first-half carries for 113 yards, the Chargers were otherwise ineffective offensively. They curiously called 14 runs and just five passes. Rivers finished 17-of-30 for 212 yards, one touchdown and one interception for the game.
Lewis opened the second half with a 71-yard kickoff return to the Chargers’ 25-yard line, but the Patriots wasted it. Brady threw three consecutive incompletions, and Gostkowski hooked his 43-yard field-goal attempt.
The Bolts acted like dolts after that, however. Rivers and Tyrell Williams connected for a 42-yard touchdown, but it was called back because Williams was flagged for illegal touching after running out of bounds before the catch. Three plays later, David Harris’ pressure forced Rivers out of the pocket, and the quarterback inexplicably fumbled the ball and was sacked by Elandon Roberts and Guy for a 20-yard loss to doom the scoring chance.
Brady and the offense was opportunistic even if they struggled to finish drives. The 40-year-old hit White twice on the ensuing series for third-down conversions, and Gostkowski’s 43-yard field goal padded the cushion to 18-7.
The Patriots struggled to close out the game, though. Gostkowski pushed his 43-yard field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter — his first game with two missed field goals since 2012 — and the Chargers doubled down on the rough stretch a minute later. Malcolm Butler got caught staring into the offensive backfield, and Benjamin blew past him on the snap to haul in an easy 24-yard touchdown pass. Rivers’ 2-point bid for Antonio Gates sailed through the end zone, so the Patriots maintained an 18-13 lead.
The Chargers had a couple chances late in the fourth quarter, but Trey Flowers knocked down a third-down pass with 4:52 remaining and Gostkowski added to the lead with a 26-yard field goal on the next drive. Rivers marched the Chargers to the Patriots’ 23-yard line with 1 second remaining, but Jones intercepted his final pass to seal the victory.
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