I, for one, am glad that the Chargers managed not to choke away the game last weekend and came away 1-0. It means that the Chargers aren't staring 0-2 in the face heading across the country to play one of the best teams in football. That, of course, would be the New England Patriots. The Chargers' recent history against this team has not been good--since 2006, the Chargers are 1-4 against them, their only win coming in 2008 when Matt Cassel (you know, this guy) started at quarterback for them.
Last year, the two teams met in Week 7 in San Diego, and the result was one of the most frustrating game's I've yet witnessed. The Chargers were a disappointing 2-4, having lost two in a row, the last at St. Louis in a nightmare game that saw Philip Rivers get sacked 7 times. The team was under enormous pressure to find a way to win at home against a very good team. The Patriots, on the other hand, were still somewhat of a team in flux. They had recently released Randy Moss, and were still working out the kinks in their new offensive scheme. Despite this, New England was an excellent 5-1 coming off an exhilarating overtime win against a good Baltimore Ravens team.
The first of a cacphony of errors occurred with 4:29 left in the first quarter. Having been pinned deep in their own end, Rivers threw a dump-off pass on third and long to TE Kris Wilson. He was hit several yards short of the first down marker, and while in the process of being tackled lost control of the football. The Patriots picked it up, and a few plays later Tom Brady hit Rob Gronkowski in the end zone for a touchdown.
Another offensive possession for the Chargers, another inexplicable mistake. Richard Goodman, a special teamer forced into the game because of injuries, made a catch for a first down at the New England 41. He then proceeded to make the Vincent Jackson mistake--falling to the ground while making the catch, Goodman was not touched. He then got up, and left the ball on the ground. Patriot defensive backs immediately recognized the mistake, fell on the ball, and killed a promising drive. New England was forced to punt, but the damage was done.
Not about to be outdone by Goodman, Rivers and Jacob Hester decided to one-up him. On the ensuing Charger possession, after achieving 1st and 10 at the New England 32 yard line, Rivers made an ill-advised attempt to dump a pass off to Jacob Hester, who was several yards to his right. Hester was unable to haul in the high toss, but rather deflected it to the ground in front of him. All the players on the field assumed it was an incomplete pass. All, that is, except New England linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who fell on the loose ball and returned it all the way to the San Diego 8 yard line. Only a tackle by Philip Rivers prevented him from scoring a touchdown. That proved important, because on the ensuing Patriots possession back-to-back sacks by Shaun Phillips and Antwan Barnes forced them to settle for a field goal.
The bumbling continued. The next series saw Rivers throw an interception to Devin McCourty, which completed a stretch of four consecutive San Diego possessions that ended via turnover. Two punts later, the Patriots ended the first half with another field goal, making the score 13-3. Why wasn't the score worse than that, you ask? Because the Charger defense played its heart out. Lineman and linebackers were hitting and hurrying Brady on nearly every play. Defensive backs knocked numerous catchable balls away from New England receivers. If not for the valiant effort by the Charger defense, it would not have even been close.
The second half brought an end to the comedy of errors, but the Patriots padded their lead with a TD and FG drive, and the Chargers could answer only with a FG, making the score 23-6 halfway through the 4th quarter. The game appeared essentially over. And that's when the Chargers decided they weren't done. With 7:25 to go in the game, the Chargers finally found the end zone when Rivers hit Gates for a 4 yard TD pass. But then rather than kick it away, the Chargers special teams tried to do something positive and went for the onside kick. The ball was recovered by none other than Richard Goodman, and the Chargers proceeded to drive down the field again and scored another touchdown, this time a 1 yard run by Mike Tolbert. Incredibly, all this took little more than three minutes, 20 seconds. The Patriots took over at their own 40 yard line with four whole minutes left in the game, the Chargers in possession of all three of their timeouts, and a suddenly slim 3 point lead at 23-20.
The Patriots managed to move the ball 9 yards, and faced 4th and 1 at their own 49 yard line. Despite taking heavy criticism for a similar move in 2009, Bill Belichick decided to leave his offense on the field and try to keep the ball by converting on 4th down. The play called was a simple run up the middle by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and it was blown up in the backfield by a combination of Shaun Phillips and Antwan Applewhite.
At this point, all the momentum was with San Diego. They had all three timeouts, two minutes, and the ball in New England territory having just sliced their way through the Patriot defense on two consecutive drives. The Chargers moved the ball, but only to the New England 27 before facing 4th down. A false start by Luis Vasquez made it the NE 32. At this point, I'd like to point out a statement made by our fearless leader in the days leading up to the game. Numerous Charger fans were expressing distaste with Kris Brown, Nate Kaeding's injury replacement. In response, we were assured, and I quote:
This game is not going to come down to a Kris Brown field goal in the final seconds.
Alas, there we were, with less than a minute to go a needing a field goal to tie. Back went the snap, boom went the kick, and clank went the ball off the right upright. Game over.
This was one of the most maddening, frustrating, pull-your-hair-out excruciating games the Chargers have played in recent memory. They got a near dominating performance from their defense against an elite offense, but thanks to some of the dumbest mistakes you'll ever see on a professional football field found themselves trailing by three scores late. Then they got everyone hopes up sky high by mounting a furious comeback, stuffing said elite offense on 4th down with minutes left to play, and blew the game at the last second by clanking a field goal.Suffice it to say, I'm a bit jaded about the whole thing.
Regardless, this weekend is a new day. The Chargers have real live wide receivers this time--Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd both, along with a mostly healthy Antonio Gates. The Chargers (probably) won't commit the same boneheaded mistakes again. The ones made in last year's game were enough to last a lifetime, thanks. The Chargers will be lucky to get another such performance out of their defense, but if the offense does its job this time they won't have to. Even on a neutral field this would be a tough game for the Chargers, and the fact that it's in New England makes it even harder. But something resembling health and intelligence on offense makes me think we have a chance that's as good as, if not better than, last year.