Defense leads Patriots over Chargers as New England stays atop AFC
All that now stands between the New England Patriots and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs is a three-game stretch against three divisional rivals. The Patriots close the year with home games against Miami and Buffalo, bookending a trip to New York.
Win all three and the AFC playoffs will go through Foxborough.
Catch up on everything you missed from NFL Week 14
The Patriots dodged another threat to their No. 1 seed hopes in Week 14, despite an off night from their offense. A 10-point fourth quarter pushed Bill Belichick's club past San Diego, 23-14, its eighth win in nine games. The result also dropped the Chargers from the No. 5 seed -- and a shot at overtaking Denver in the AFC West next week -- to No. 6, clinging to the last playoff spot.
Three thoughts from Sunday's finale:
1. Its defense saved New England
The storyline here was 15 minutes from being the same, only flipped to the other sideline. San Diego turned in a stalwart defensive showing too, complete with a defensive scoop-and-score touchdown return by Darrell Stuckey.
But when the Patriots really needed it, they found just enough offense. First, a 55-yard drive ended with a Stephen Gostkowksi field goal that gave New England a lead early in the fourth quarter. Then, Tom Brady erased a frustrating night -- and removed any lingering doubt about the game's outcome -- by hitting Julian Edelman on a 69-yard touchdown pass, most of those yards gained on a terrific Edelman effort.
The Chargers, on the other hand, never found any big plays against New England's D, nor could they sustain a drive after an 80-yard TD march in the second quarter.
"Our defense was unbelievable," Brady told NBC's Michele Tafoya. "They kept us in it all night. It was a defensive win right there."
Plenty of praise to go around for the Patriots, but it should start with two guys: Darrelle Revis and Jamie Collins. Revis shadowed Keenan Allen, San Diego's leading receiver heading into Sunday with 72 catches; Allen finished with two catches for three yards. Philip Rivers mustered just 189 yards passing without his top target's help.
And then there is Collins. The second-year linebacker continues to be something of a breakout star in 2014, never more so than on Sunday night as he was forced into defensive signal-calling duties by a Dont'a Hightower injury.
Collins recorded a team-leading nine tackles, sacked Rivers twice and helped call the shots for arguably the best performance by New England's defense this season.
"It was a big challenge, but I look forward to things like that," said Collins of stepping into Hightower's shoes. "[I] take advantage of opportunities."
As if the defense's work was not enough, New England's biggest play before halftime came on a Brandon Bolden blocked punt. Bolden's effort handed the Patriots possession at the San Diego 25. A Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski touchdown four plays later pulled the Patriots within 14-13 at halftime.
2. Whither the offensive lines?
Hand in hand with Sunday night's defensive work were the constant breakdowns up front for each offense. At least prior to the fourth quarter, Brady seemed flustered by the Chargers' pressure, the majority of it provided by Melvin Ingram and coming against struggling left tackle Nate Solder.
Somehow, Rivers had it even worse. He took four sacks -- two by Collins, one by Rob Ninkovich and a tag-team takedown by Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga -- and worse than that, was limited almost exclusively to check-down or underneath crossing routes.
The Ninkovich sack came as New England overloaded the line to Rivers' right, the Patriots' pass-rusher coming untouched at Rivers. Multiple pressures by Collins came up the middle, with center Chris Watt in particular at fault at least once.
San Diego's run game took a huge blow, too, when Ryan Mathews limped off after being tripped by Kyle Arrington. The Patriots were hit with a penalty for Arrington's illegal tackle attempt, but Mathews' solid night unraveled in a hurry. He had 52 yards rushing before the play and minus-eight afterward.
Branden Oliver rushed for all of one yard on three carries in the meantime, as San Diego more or less gave up on the ground game. But nothing worked against New England's attacking defense.
3. On that penalty ...
Had the Patriots not rallied to win, this would be the main talking point from the Sunday night game. As it is, the 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty thrown against Brandon Browner for his hit on TE Ladarius Green probably warrants some discussion anyway.
Specifically, should helmet-to-helmet calls be reviewable in some fashion, as targeting fouls are in college?
Here's a look at the play in question:
The resulting Devin McCourty pick-six off that hit was nullified by the penalty against Browner.
Was it the correct call? The NFL rulebook prohibits hits against any "defenseless ... receiver attempting to catch a pass" as Green was there. Such hits are defined, in short, as "Forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head or neck area"; "Lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/‖hairline‖ parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body; and "Illegally launching into a defenseless opponent."
If there was any gray area on Browner's hit, it came in his shoulder grazing the bottom of Green's facemask, an act that could be penalized on its own.
However, Browner moved his helmet out of the way and led with his shoulder, with the focal point for contact appearing to be Green's shoulder. Browner did not try to wrap up but he did avoid much more dangerous tackling methods -- the helmet-to-helmet or helmet-to-chest hits that the NFL has been adamant about trying to outlaw.
Penalties like this one are why cornerbacks and safeties have been more aggressive in tackling low of late, an approach that has resulted in several devastating knee and leg injuries around the league. Those hits, for the most part, are allowed.
Truth is, the NFL may have to accept some missed calls, as the one on Browner appeared to be, if it wants to continue limiting helmet-to-helmet action. Giving coaches the opportunity to challenge close plays might alleviate some of the concerns. (In college, the aforementioned "targeting" penalties are reviewed to determine if a player should be ejected; the flags cannot be picked up once thrown.)
It's understandable to some extent, too, why the officials threw the flag Sunday night. Green's head snapped back, he was injured and the impact was relatively high.
Browner had reason to argue, though. NFL defenders face an almost impossible task trying to play within the rules these days, and this was merely the latest example.