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Patriots work in unison in win vs. Bolts
Viewed from above, Vince Wilfork’s interception and the 36-yard return that ensued bordered on whimsical.
Here was a 6-foot-2, 325-pound New England Patriots defensive lineman who tipped a pass by San Diego Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers to himself and chugged down the sideline. The return — officially cut to 28 yards due to an illegal block — set up a field goal to close the first half.
Another term for that sequence was thrown around after the Patriots’ 35-21 victory at Gillette Stadium on Sunday: “complementary football.”
“We still have to work on the yardage and third-down defense and things like that, but we showed some great mental toughness by coming up with huge turnovers and playing complementary football,” Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said.
“I think we stress complementary football and situational football, like at the end of the half,” said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who followed a 517-yard performance in the opener with 423 yards passing and three TDs on Sunday. “The defense makes a huge stop like and we have to do something with it."
And by “complementary” we’re not talking about “free,” even if yardage was fairly easy to come by for the Chargers. San Diego gained 470 total yards, including 372 yards passing by Rivers. San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson had 172 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
Plays like Wilfork’s pick — along with three other forced turnovers — and a goal-line stand in the second quarter were likely the difference as the Patriots start the season 2-0 for the first time in three seasons, while the Chargers have yet to reach that mark under head coach Norv Turner.
“A lot of people say we gave up this many points, we gave up this many yards,” Wilfork said after his first career interception, “that’s a good football team we played and we beat them today. You have to tip your hats to those guys. It was just that today was our day.”
The Pats’ defense first stand came on midway through the second quarter. The Chargers drove 75 yards down field and faced a fourth-and-goal from the 1 after Rivers gained a yard on a scramble. The next play went to running back Mike Tolbert who was stopped by Mayo for no gain.
“We said ever since training camp that the goal line has to be ours,” said Mayo, who was part of defense that had a similar stand against the Miami Dolphins a week before. “That mental toughness shows up there.”
The Pats mounted their second 99-yard drive in as many games, although it wasn’t as efficient as Brady’s pass to Wes Welker which covered the entirety of that march against Miami. This drive lasted more than 12 minutes and was capped on one of tight end Rob Gronkowski’s two touchdown receptions on the day.
The Pats’ defense also hamstrung tight end Antonio Gates, usually Rivers’ favorite target and a big one at 6-foot-4. Gates, who had 74 yards receiving a week ago and averaged 78.2 yards a game last season, had zero catches.
“I just know they made it difficult for me to contribute at all,” Gates said. “They did a wonderful job re-routing me. I can’t say enough about (the Pats’ game plan). They made it difficult for me to get off the ball. They made it difficult for me to make a play on the ball.”
The Chargers trailed by double digits — this time 20-7 — but there would be no second-half comeback. While the Chargers ruled the time of possession in the third quarter, the only pass meant for Gates was picked off by safety Sergio Brown at the Pats’ 7-yard-line.
“We knew going in we can’t turn the ball over in the red zone,” Rivers said. “Those are the principles and keys to every game offensively: Score touchdowns and don’t turn the ball over.”
The Pats, whose lead was down to 20-14 at the time, surrendered even more momentum three minutes into the fourth quarter as they failed to convert on fourth-and-4 at midfield — a decision that was based largely on the punter Zoltan Mesko’s injured knee. No matter. Three players later Tolbert fumbled the ball as he attempted to cut back and Mayo fell on top of it.
“He second-guessed himself,” Turner said. “He had a five-yard gain and then he stopped to spin back and got all out of whack and fumbled the ball.”
The Patriots scored 10 points off the Chargers’ four turnovers — two of which came in the red zone — along with that long TD drive after San Diego turned the ball over on downs; New England didn’t have a single forced turnover.
“You can’t say enough about those turnovers,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “That had a huge impact on the game (along with) the goal-line stand. They moved the ball. Fortunately, they didn’t get enough points, but they certainly moved the ball.”