By: Bob George/BosSports.net
October 02, 2002

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It is not unreasonable to anguish over the fact that the Patriots should really be 4-0 right now.

LaDainian Tomlinson gained 217 yards rushing. Tom Brady threw two stupid picks. Adam Vinatieri missed his first field goal of the season. Charlie Weis negated his brilliant call of the touchdown pass to Mike Vrabel with some real head-scratching doozies.

And the Patriots only lost by seven points.

This game goes into the books as a loss. It came at the hands of a team the Patriots usually beat. It came despite the common belief that the Patriots would put Priest Holmes and his 180-yard outburst behind them and handle the San Diego Chargers with ease.

But worst of all, it came despite all signs pointing to a Patriot win, a win that was frittered away with mistakes galore. In reality, Tomlinson's bludgeoning of the Patriot defense was merely an ego deflator, and not a game loser. The sad truth is that, despite the fact that the Patriot run defense really needs retooling, the Patriots could easily have topped 21 points and didn't.

After allowing a few days for this loss to sink in, it makes you even angrier. The Patriots overcame lousy run defense against Kansas City and still won. The same should have happened on Sunday. The Patriots needed overtime to eke by the Chiefs; this game should have been a slamdunk. And if things really went well for the Patriots, the Chargers might have been forced to go more with Drew Brees and less with Tomlinson, yielding a far less gaudy day for the former TCU standout.

After easily moving 67 yards in 11 plays on the opening drive of the game, with Brady hitting Christian Fauria for a 5-yard scoring toss, the Patriots got the ball right back after Vrabel recovered a Fred McCrary fumble. But the first play of the next drive proved to be the first unraveling of the Patriots, and perhaps was the key play of the game for the Chargers.

Needing to seize momentum and a chance to go up 14-0 early, the Patriots sought to strike fast. On first down, David Patten lined up left and did a slant route inside. He found a seam in the zone, and Brady laid a bullet right in there. But Patten turned to run before he had the ball, and he dropped what should have been a sure catch. This led to a three-and-out series, and the Chargers got the ball right back and eventually tied the game on a 52-yard scoring pass from Brees to Curtis Conway.

Why was this play so key? The Patriots scored with ease on the opening drive, then recovered a fumble four plays later. The Chargers were a bone to be chewed, and the Patriots needed to go for the kill early. Beginning that second drive at the Charger 39, it figured to be an easy score for the Patriots. Had Patten caught that pass, they probably gain the Red Zone. Instead, it was nada for the Patriots and a tie game two minutes and 33 seconds later.

The next critical moment came in the second quarter. The Patriots regained the lead right away on Brady's wacky toss to Vrabel after a marvelous play fake to Antowain Smith at the Charger one. The Bolts were stopped on a three-and-out, and the Patriots embarked on a 12-play, 56-yard drive that ate up 6:47 of the clock. It was the longest drive of the afternoon for either team.

But the Patriots got nothing out of that drive. Vinatieri lined up for a 41-yard field goal attempt but missed wide right. In defense of Automatic Adam, he kicked the ball from the infield surface of Qualcomm Stadium, and likely lost his solid footing. But the game changed permanently after that miss, and instead of a 17-7 lead and a ton of time chewed up, the Chargers were rejuvenated and ready to strike back at the world champs with a vengeance.

Sure enough, the Bolts tied up the game on the next drive after the Vinatieri miss. Tomlinson was featured on this drive with five touches, the last of which was a 37-yard touchdown run. Had Vinatieri made that field goal, perhaps Marty Schottenheimer would have continued his questionable practice of not featuring his prime stud back against a defense that can't stop runners of his ilk anymore. Down only seven points, Schottenheimer was comfortable to turn Tomlinson loose.

Both Patriot drives of the third quarter ended in Brady interceptions. In both cases he was pressured, and in both cases he made poor throws instead of either eating the ball or throwing it away. On the second pick, he literally threw right to Donnie Edwards with no Patriot in the vicinity.

After Tomlinson scored on his 57-yard run in the third quarter to make it 21-14, the defense finally stiffened and allowed the Patriots to have a chance to win the game. But those Brady picks, plus some key play calls by Weis in the fourth quarter prevented the Patriots from taking advantage.

The first fourth quarter drive for the Patriots ended on downs. Facing fourth and one at the San Diego 39, Ben Leber stuffed Marc Edwards for no gain. Going for it was not the problem. But Smith is a better choice on fourth down over Edwards, as Edwards is more needed to help with blocking. And if another option is needed, a Brady sneak is a better choice (he would sneak for three yards later on in the final quarter). A short play-action pass would also have been a better option than Edwards.

Ironically, the next Patriot drive would also end at the Charger 39. Facing third and ten, Weis tried to cross up the Chargers with a draw to Smith. The poor Bolts were so fooled that Smith was nailed for a two-yard loss. Passing has become the Patriot bread and butter, and going for a high percentage gain is much more prudent than trying to be cute down seven points late in a contest.

Give the Patriots credit for having a chance to tie the game right up to the end. On what proved to be the final play of the game for the Patriots, needed 55 yards in 17 seconds and one timeout, Brady hit Kevin Faulk over the middle for a 13-yard gain, but instead tried a hook-and-lateral. The lateral went right to Alex Molden, and that settled things for good.

The moral of this story: Let Ricky Williams have his yards. The Dolphins gave up 48 to Kansas City. Win a high scoring deal. No prob.


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