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Patriots Defuse Chargers, Roar Back into First Place with Win

From Patriots Football Weekly 

SAN DIEGO, Calif. – From La Jolla to Mission Valley, word around these parts was that the Patriots wouldn’t pose a problem to the schizophrenic Chargers, who handled the Kansas City Chiefs with ease a week earlier. But, as Bolts fandom soon found out, the Patriots aren’t a team to be taken lightly this year. Or as New England kicker Adam Vinatieri said, “You can’t take a team that has a better record than you lightly.”

Of course, the Chargers claimed that they never took New England lightly. Given their lackadaisical play, though, one was left to wonder if the Chargers hadn’t adopted the same laissez faire approach that their fans had toward the Pats.

The New Englanders didn’t only pose a problem, but they inflicted a serious dent in San Diego’s playoff hopes with a key 45-7 conference victory at Jack Murphy Stadium on Sunday night.

With the Buffalo Bills losing to Indianapolis on the road and the Dolphins falling to the homestanding Raiders, New England could regain a share of the AFC East lead with the Bills and distance itself from the Fish. With three games remaining, New England is deadlocked with Buffalo in first place, and the Patriots have a better division record (6-2) than the Bills (4-3).

“If we can play like this, then we’ve got a good chance of doing something,” said New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe. “What we have to do now is continue to go onward and upward from here. We’ve got something to play for now, and we’re very excited about it.”

Much like the Broncos’ 15-year dominance of the Patriots, New England continued its vexing ways against the Chargers. San Diego hasn’t topped either the Boston or New England Patriots since a 16-14 American Football League (AFL) win over the Boston Patriots at Harvard Stadium in 1970. Despite the first-place Pats’ recent struggles against the AFC West (one win in the last 13 games), New England (9-4) still has San Diego’s number.

“I’m not a historian,” said San Diego offensive guard Eric Moten, whose team fell to 7-6. “We played them this year and we lost to them this year. That’s the only game that matters to me.”

The Chargers didn’t play like the game mattered much to them. San Diego committed six turnovers, which the Pats converted into 31 points. The Patriot defense posted six sacks (four of quarterback Stan Humphries) and four interceptions, and special teams forced a fumbled that was returned for a touchdown.

Linebacker Willie McGinest (55) scored on a fumble recovery.

For a change, it was the New England defense that demanded headlines this night. As efficient as the offense was, it racked up average numbers. This was largely due to the defense and special teams gift-wrapping great field position for the offense all evening, allowing the Pats to score on their first two possessions and on four of their first seven in the first half. Excluding New England defensive end Willie McGinest’s fumble recovery in the San Diego end zone, the Pats began their scoring drives at their 36, 31, the Charger seven and the Patriot 46.

With New England using the pass to set up the run, Patriot runner Curtis Martin picked up 51 yards on 12 carries in the first half, finishing with 63 yards on 19 carries. Buoyed by the performances of tight end Ben Coates (six catches, 71 yards), rookie receiver Terry Glenn (5-63, 1 touchdown) and former Charger Shawn Jefferson (4-52, 1 touchdown), Bledsoe completed 19 of 29 pass attempts for 232 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.

The Patriot secondary had a banner day, with cornerback Otis Smith, corner Jerome Henderson, linebacker Ted Johnson and strong safety Lawyer Milloy all registering picks. Patriot corner Scooter McGruder and McGinest split a sack, while rookie linebacker Tedy Bruschi, defensive tackle Pio Sagapolutele, rookie defensive lineman Chad Eaton and outside linebacker Chris Slade each picked up a sack.

“There’s really not much I can say,” said San Diego coach Bobby Ross. “We turned the ball over six times and it led to five scores. It turned real ugly real fast.

“Obviously, we weren’t clicking,” he added. “We were off and we did not play very well . . . It was very frustrating to me to be able to go out one week and play very well, and to come right back home – when you think you have a little momentum – and not play well. It’s very frustrating to me. I wish I had the answer to it.”

Pats safety Lawyer Milloy takes down quarterback Stan Humphries.

Despite Ross’ state of denial, the answer may very well lie in the other team’s performance. The high-octane New England offense was on a roll unseen since a 46-38 win over the Baltimore Ravens in October. But this time, the Patriot defense held. New England’s down linemen had their best day of the fall, mercilessly clobbering Humphries. The Chargers raised the white flag with about six minutes left in the third quarter, when Humphries was forced out of the game with a Mike Jones-induced concussion.

While the New England defense silenced the concussive blast of the Chargers’ cannon in Cannon Alley, Bledsoe displayed a surgeon’s efficiency for the second consecutive week. He sliced and diced San Diego’s sieve-like secondary and staked the Pats to a 31-7 halftime lead, completing nine of his first 11 pass attempts for 124 yards and three touchdowns.

“Coming in, we felt that we were going to have a little trouble pounding the ball between the tackles because they have a good front four,” Bledsoe said of San Diego’s offensive line: Marco Coleman, Reuben Davis, John Parella and Chris Mims. “We came in throwing and had a little effectiveness.”

Given New England’s white-hot offense, its opportunistic defense and the Chargers’ Swiss-cheese defensive scheme, the Patriots scored virtually every which way but the run in the first half. Bledsoe found Glenn, tight end Keith Byars and fullback Sam Gash for touchdown passes, and outside linebacker Chris Slade whacked the ball out of Humphries’ hand for McGinest to fall on in the end zone.

Early action indicated a return to the free-for-all offensive days of the AFL. The Patriots looked as if they were playing in a 60,794-seat sand lot on their first possession, scoring with ease. New England offensive coordinator Ray Perkins went for the throat immediately, calling a pass play to Coates, who beat free-agent pickup Kurt Gouveia in the left slot for a 22-yard reception to San Diego’s 42-yard line. Martin was hit for a one-yard loss by free safety Kevin Ross, Glenn snared an eight-yard pass, and all-purpose back David Meggett plunged ahead for two, setting up a fourth-and-one play.

Receiver Terry Glenn hauls in a bomb under the bright lights of 'The Murph."

Overwhlemed by the Murph’s raucous crowd, Bledsoe animatedly signaled time out. Moments later, with San Diego biting on a play-action handoff to Martin, Bledsoe fired a 21-yard completion to Coates, who lined up tight on the right side before releasing on an out pattern. So, on first and 10 at the San Diego 12, Martin set up the Patriots’ first score by bolting up the middle to the Charger eight. Glenn, lined up in the left slot, beat San Diego linebacker Junior Seau at the line of scrimmage and faded toward the left sideline. Bledsoe then looped a pass to Glenn, who spun around and made a spectacular one-handed grab with his left hand before scooting by cornerback Willie Clark for a 7-0 edge at the 11:13 mark of the first.

Then the New England offense handed off to the defense, which limited the Bolts to five plays and a punt. Changing gears, New England took to the ground four times in eight plays before going airborne for the final two plays of the drive.

Starting at their 31, the Pats ran the ball twice before Seau was flagged for an offside infraction, forcing a third and two at the New England 39. Martin started right, but quickly cut upfield for an 11-yard gain behind a key block by center Dave Wohlabaugh. Glenn caught – out of bounds – a bomb on a fly pattern down the right sideline, then Martin raced up the middle before Glenn snared a 25-yard pass in the right slot for a first down at the Charger 19. Provided with perhaps his best single-play pass protection of the season, Bledsoe scanned the field once or twice before finding Byars crossing left to right in the end zone for what proved to be the game-winning points. Vinatieri nailed the second of six extra points for a 14-0 cushion.

At this stage of the game, New England’s lead was still tenuous, at best. Charger runner Leonard Russell, a former Patriot, ran into some success on the outside, and Humphries completed a 46-yard touchdown bomb to wide receiver Tony Martin. Aside from the touchdown play, when he beat ailing corner Ricky Reynolds (ankle) to the inside, Martin was held to four grabs for 38 yards.

After the Chargers narrowed the New England lead to 14-7, the Bolts’ fortunes plummeted quicker than a Southern California mudslide. On fourth down, New England punter Tom Tupa boomed a 45-yard punt that special teams whiz Larry Whigham downed at the San Diego two. From there, McGinest brought down Russell from behind for a one-yard loss, and the referees ruled what looked to be a 45-plus yard completion to Charlie Jones an incomplete pass. On the next play, Patriot defensive lineman Ferric Collons batted Humphries’ pass to the middle of the field, where middle linebacker Ted Johnson awaited his first career interception at the San Diego seven.

“We knew that if we put pressure on Humphries, that we’d make him throw some bad passes,” said Slade, who recalled the Pats’ similar success in a 23-17 win over San Diego two years ago. “In ’94, when they came to Foxboro, we did the same thing. We came in today with the attitude that we were going to make plays on both sides of the ball.”

Moving forward, Martin was hogtied for no gain, but Bledsoe found Gash alone in the right flat for a seven-yard pass and a 21-7 cushion. On the ensuing kickoff, the Patriots were the beneficiaries of San Diego tight end Brian Roche’s brain-lock. While teammate Andre Coleman was winding his way downfield for a touchdown return, Roche wrestled linebacker Marty Moore to the ground and was whistled for holding. Instead of trailing by only seven, the Bolts went to work on their 19.

Four uneventful series later, the Patriot defense struck again. Due to blanket coverage by the New England secondary, Slade was able to take the long road around right end to nail Humphries from the blind side and whack the ball out of his right hand. The ball lazily bounced into the end zone, where McGinest fell on it. New England, 28-7.

San Diego linebacker Junior Seau.

On the following series, Humphries was looking at Martin down the left sideline, but inexplicably threw the ball underneath in the slot to Milloy. Six plays later, Vinatieri boomed a 47-yard field goal with 53 seconds left to cap a 31-point first half, the best offensive output in the first half by the Pats this year and during New England coach Bill Parcells’ regime.

Considering New England’s penchant for second-half flops, this game was far from a lock. But the defense and special teams continued to punish the Chargers in the second half. Smith picked off Humphries near the left sideline less than a minute into the second half. Three plays after the Patriots’ series began on the Charger 27, New England began to twist the dagger when Bledsoe found Jefferson for an 11-yard score and a 38-7 cushion with 13:46 left in the third. Jefferson beat Seau to the outside, collected the ball at the seven, and rushed for the end zone before reaching over the goal line with corner Darien Gordon hugging his ankles.

Before the third ended, Whigham ripped the ball loose from punt returner Brian Still near the New England sideline. Special teamer Corwin Brown scooped up the loose ball and coasted into the right corner of the end zone for the final score.

“I’m just happy with the way we played,” said Parcells, “but I wouldn’t make too much of it, if I were you. We’re tied for first place now, but we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. If we play like we did tonight, we’re going to be a factor.”