The New England Patriots defeated the San Diego Chargers on Sunday Night Football by a score of 23-14 to improve their record to 10-3 and maintain their lead in the race for the AFC's #1 seed. The game was played before a surprisingly Patriot-friendly crowd on Sunday Night Football at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. Here are five takeaways from the Patriots victory:
Road to the Super Bowl still runs through New England. On paper, tonight's game was the most difficult remaining match-up on the Patriots schedule: On the road against the 8-4 Chargers, coming off a tough loss to the Packers, and not having been home since week 12. Nonetheless, the Patriots put together an impressive victory that was highlighted by a dominating defensive performance. The win was an emotional one, as you could see from the reaction of Tom Brady, the players, and the coaches following the game. The most important part of the victory: the Patriots maintain their hold of the #1 seed in the AFC with three regular season games to go.
Defense up to the task. Tonight was an absolutely dominating defensive performance from the Patriots. The Patriots allowed one second quarter touchdown defensively, and that was it. The defense played some of its best football at all three levels. Darrelle Revis completely shut down Keenan Allen. With Dont'a Hightower out, Jamie Collins stepped in as the signal caller and had a dominating performance as a pass rusher, run defender, and in coverage. Akeem Ayers had a critical second half interception, and also contributed with a few pressures. Rob Ninkovich bested right tackle D.J. Fluker throughout the evening. Sealver Siliga made impact plays against the run and as a pass rusher in his first game back from short-term injured reserve. Had it non been for a highly questionable helmet-to-helmet call on Brandon Browner, the unit also would have had a pick-six (Devin McCourty). With the Patriots' offense struggling to begin the second half, the defense didn't give the Chargers' offense an inch, and that was huge.
Julian Edelman the playmaker. Wide receiver Julian Edelman really got going tonight for the Patriots, and was arguably the team's key player on that side of the ball. Edelman finished with eight catches for 141 yards. He ran some really crisp routes throughout the game, made tough contested catches, and was a big factor in the intermediate game. His 69-yard catch and run for a touchdown, on a route down the seam off a Brady play-action, just about sealed the victory for the Patriots. Rob Gronkowski also had a big day for the Patriots. He had the Patriots' lone first half touchdown on a back shoulder fade from Tom Brady, and finished with eight catches for 87 yards along with that score.
Pass rush gets going without Chandler Jones. After looking woeful in this area against Aaron Rodgers, the Patriots were able to get some pressure on Philip Rivers tonight. Although there were several instances where Rivers seemingly had an eternity to throw, the front four was able to produce some rush, especially in the second half. The team finished with four sacks, and also used a variety of blitz packages (see: linebacker, a-gap) to manufacture pressure in many passing situations. Things will only improve when Chandler Jones gets back, so it was nice to see some improvement tonight without him in the line-up.
Offensive line woes appear to be back. The offensive line had their fair share of struggles tonight, with issues that were seen in last week's game against the Packers. Nate Solder was constantly abused by Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney. He had a rough beginning to the season, seemed to shape up in October and November, but has played sub-par two straight games. Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly also had some struggles on the interior. In the run game, it seemed like LeGarrette Blount was constantly getting wrapped up in the backfield due to a poor initial surge from the line. In the passing game, Brady struggled to get into a rhythm and go through his progressions because he didn't trust the protection. This is an issue the Patriots will need to address down the stretch.