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Halftime analysis: Patriots 20, Chargers 7

09.18.11 at 5:42 pm ET
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FOXBORO — There are two quarters in the books here at Gillette Stadium, and the Patriots hold a 20-7 lead. Here are a few notes:

‘€¢The New England offense looks very smooth — Zoltan Mesko has been the loneliest man on the sidelines, as the Patriots have not punted the ball away while putting together scoring drives of 92 and 99 yards on the way to the first-half lead. Tom Brady was 20 for 23 for 240 yards, while Chad Ochocinco had catches of 15 and 30 yards in the first half. In addition, Aaron Hernandez, Deion Branch and Wes Welker were all active throughout the first two quarters, all catching at least three passes in the first half. Meanwhile, BenJarvus Green-Ellis finished the first half with 22 rushing yards.

‘€¢The Patriots were able to keep the chains moving on their 92-yard opening drive. New England was three-for-three on third-down opportunities and punching the ball in with a 14-yard pass from Brady to Hernandez where Hernandez went up and over smallish safety Bob Sanders, pulling the ball down from its highest point and, after a brief bobble, holding on for the touchdown to make it 7-0 midway through the first quarter. They added to that on their second scoring drive when they got down to the San Diego four, but passes for Hernandez and Branch went incomplete, and settled for a 22-yard field goal that made it 10-7 with 13:20 left in the first half. New England pushed out to a 10-point lead on a 99-yard drive that ended with a 10-yard pass from Brady to Gronkowski to make it 17-7 with 2:49 left in the half.

‘€¢Patriots opened frequently with three tight ends on the field, as Nate Solder reported in as a tight end three times on New England’s first scoring drive of the afternoon, and several times over the course of the first half. When it comes to the tight ends, it was a bit of a mixed bag on the day, as Shaun Phillips beat Gronkowski badly off the edge for the Chargers first sack of the game midway through the first quarter. (Running back Danny Woodhead appeared to struggle on occasion with blitz pickup in the first half, getting beaten by San Diego linebacker Donald Butler.) In addition, Gronkowski was also whistled for a hold late in the first quarter that negated a New England gain. (Cornerback Leigh Bodden also picked up an ill-timed whistle when he was flagged for a hold late in the first half, keeping a San Diego drive alive.) Of course, all was made right when Brady found Gronkowski on a 10-yard touchdown pass with 2:49 left in the first half.

‘€¢New England opened in a three-man defensive front and shifted back and forth between four-man and three-man fronts. New England managed to keep the Chargers out of the end zone on San Diego’s first series from scrimmage, but the Chargers converted on their next opportunity, taking the ball 80 yards on seven plays in 3:21 to tie the game at seven. (That series was highlighted by a pair of catches from Malcom Floyd, a sweet 23-yarder and an equally impressive 36-yarder.) On the next series, San Diego made it all the way down to the Patriots one, but Mike Tolbert was stuffed on fourth and goal by linebacker Jerod Mayo on a great stop. That set up the Patriots 99-yard scoring drive that made it 17-7 with 2:49 left in the first half.

‘€¢The defensive highlight of the first half? A 28-yard interception return by Vince Wilfork with less than a minute left in the second quarter. The Patriots turned it into a 47-yard field goal as time expired at the end of the first half.

‘€¢Sebastian Vollmer saw his first action of the 2011 season, getting the start at right tackle, while veteran Matt Light was at left tackle. In addition, Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes were both on the field for the first time during the regular season.

Analysis of the Patriots’ inactives for Sunday

09.18.11 at 3:01 pm ET
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FOXBORO — The Patriots will be without quarterback Ryan Mallett, wide receiver Taylor Price, running back Shane Vereen, linebacker Gary Guyton, offensive lineman Ryan Wendell, offensive lineman Dan Koppen and defensive lineman Mike Wright for Sunday’s game against the Chargers.

While Mallett, Koppen and Wright are no surprise (Mallett is the No. 3 quarterback, while Koppen (fibula) and Wright (concussion) were out of practice all week because of injuries suffered in the season-opening win over Miami. In addition, Wendell (calf) and Price (hamstring) have been slowed by hamstring problems and have missed a sizable chunk of time as of later, while Guyton (hamstring) was limited all week. Meanwhile, rookie Vereen has struggled to see the field after suffering a hamstring injury of his own in the preseason.

With no Guyton, it will be interesting to see how the Patriots go about defending San Diego tight end Antonio Gates. The plus-sized Gates, who is fast but also too big for a safety to cover, had been shadowed by Guyton in the past. On Sunday, that role could fall to linebackers Dane Fletcher or A.J. Edds, or the biggest safety New England has in Josh Barrett.

With those seven on the sidelines, it appears that linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham and offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer will all be making their 2011 debuts Sunday afternoon against the Chargers.

Read More: A.J. Edds, Antonio Gates, Brandon Spikes, Dan Koppen

Remember Bob Sanders? Deion Branch does

09.18.11 at 1:57 pm ET
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FOXBORO — One of the biggest nemeses of the Patriots in the 2000s was Colts strong safety Bob Sanders. No one in football was better as a safety in run support than Sanders, whom many of the Patriots considered a linebacker in the secondary.

But Sanders had trouble staying on the field in seven seasons in Indianapolis, especially in his last three.

In Sept. 2008, Sanders missed over a month with a high ankle sprain, suffered in the Colts’ second game of the season against the Minnesota Vikings. Sanders would be replaced by second-year safety Melvin Bullitt.

In 2009, Sanders started two games before being placed on injured reserve on Nov. 6 with an arm injury. He recorded six tackles and one interception in his two games that year.

In 2010, Sanders left the season opener with a torn biceps tendon he tried and tried but on Dec. 8, he was placed on injured reserve, which ended his season. In February, Sanders was released by the Colts after only playing nine games since the start of 2008.

In a team statement he said, “I always will consider myself a Colt. I want to thank the fans also for their great support. They played a big part in making my seven years with the team very rewarding.”

Now, Sanders has new life with the San Diego Chargers, who signed him in the offseason to a one-year, $2 million deal. And after three solo tackles and three assists last week against the Vikings, it appears he’s back to normal. Just ask Deion Branch, the receiver who will be going up against Sanders, free safety Eric Weddle and corners Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason.

“The guy looks good,” Branch said. “It doesn’t look like he missed “X” amount of games, I promise you that. It definitely doesn’t look like he missed all of last year. The guy looks real good. Eric Weddle looks great and the two corners have always been pretty good.”

All four will be in action this afternoon against a Patriots passing attack that hung up 517 yards, four touchdowns and 38 points against the Dolphins six days ago.

Read More: Bob Sanders, Deion Branch, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots

Setting the scene: Patriots-Chargers

09.18.11 at 1:01 pm ET
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FOXBORO — It couldn’t be a more ideal afternoon for the Patriots’ 2011 home opener as clear skies and temperatures in the mid-60s are expected for their game against the Chargers at 4:15 p.m. ET (Ch. 4). The wind could play a bit of a factor as it’s a chilly breeze out of the northeast at 10-15 MPH.

The Patriots have quite the streak on the line today as they have never lost a home opener at Gillette, which opened in 2002, going 9-0 in the previous nine home openers in Foxboro. It is the longest such streak in the NFL.

The last loss in the Patriots home opener came on Sept. 23, 2001 against the Jets in the final home opener at Foxboro Stadium. That was the day Mo Lewis drilled Drew Bledsoe on the sidelines, puncturing his lung and breaking several ribs, seriously injuring the Patriots starting quarterback.

One week later, Tom Brady made his first NFL start against the Colts. Two weeks after that, Brady led the Patriots to a 29-26 overtime win against the Chargers at Foxboro.

The Chargers handed the Patriots their worst regular season loss ever at Gillette, throttling them 41-17 on Oct. 2, 2005.

Today’s Chargers are a much healthier group than the one that lost to the Patriots 23-20 last October at Qualcomm Stadium. In addition to quarterback Philip Rivers, they have Antonio Gates at full strength (limited last year by turf toe) and wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, both of whom missed the game last year.

One player who is out is left defensive end Luis Castillo, who broke his leg last week in the season opener. Vaughn Martin takes his spot.

As for the Patriots, they will play their first game without Dan Koppen since 2007 when he missed a game with a foot injury. Koppen broke a bone in the area of his left ankle when Karlos Dansby fell on him late in the first half Monday night in Miami. Koppen has been an iron man at center for the Patriots, starting all 16 games in 2006, ’08, ’09 and ’10. The Patriots will also be without Mike Wright, who suffered another concussion Monday night. He missed half of 2010 with a concussion and the Patriots are likely to be very cautious with the athletic and speedy defensive lineman.

The national anthem will be performed by Travis Clark of “We The Kings” and the colors will be presented by the USS Constitution Honor Guard. “We The Kings” also performed this weekend during Patriots Hall of Fame ceremonies as Bledsoe and Jon Morris were awarded their “red coats” in Saturday’s induction.

There will be a moment of silence before the game to honor the memory of Myra Hiatt Kraft, the late wife of Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Myra Kraft passed away in August after a battle with cancer. The Patriots have a tribute to her on the first page of their “GAMEDAY” program today.

Scouts are on hand from the Chiefs, Bills and Raiders are on hand in the press box for today’s tilt.

The Patriots play the Bills next weekend in Orchard Park before traveling to Oakland the following Sunday.

Read More: Buffalo Bills, Drew Bledsoe, Kansas City Chiefs, Myra Hiatt Kraft

Ten Final Thoughts on Patriots-Chargers

09.18.11 at 9:12 am ET
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With kickoff looming, here are 10 final thoughts on the Patriots and Chargers:

1. It didn’€™t make the cut for our Top 10 matchups, but it’€™ll be interesting to see how Sebastian Vollmer does in his first game back, and how the Patriots rotate their tackles. Just a guess, but it appears that Nate Solder and Vollmer have the most versatility, while Light sticks for most of the contest at left tackle.

2. You can measure the recent history of the Patriots using games against the Chargers as a guidepost: the legend of Tom Brady really took hold on Oct. 14, 2001, when he led his first comeback as a pro against San Diego. The 2002 Patriots were exposed in a nasty loss to the Chargers in San Diego. You knew the 2005 Patriots were in serious trouble after getting spanked 41-17 hat October by the Chargers at Gillette Stadium, breaking a 21-game home win streak. Brady led New England to perhaps its most underrated playoff win in recent memory when the Patriots upended the Chargers in the 2006 divisional playoffs. And in 2007, a thunderous win the week after the Spygate scandal broke highlighted the regular season, while New England’€™s win over San Diego in January 2008 remains New England’€™s last postseason victory.

3. BenJarvus Green Ellis has some awful career numbers against the Chargers — in two games against San Diego, he has 24 yards on 11 carries, with one touchdown. Among teams he’€™s faced more than once, it represents the lowest output of his career.

4. My favorite stat of the week from my buddy Gary from Nuggetpalooza — the Patriots have not allowed a rushing touchdown in the first quarter in their last 22 home games, the longest current streak in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Chargers haven’€™t scored such a touchdown in any of their last eight road tilts.

5. News on two former Patriots worth passing along: One, defensive lineman Ty Warren was placed on injured reserve on Saturday with a pectoral injury. It’€™ll make back-to-back seasons on injured reserve for Warren, who missed all of last season with New England because of a hip injury. For the immensely likable Warren, it could mean the end of his career. Second, it looks like safety Brandon Meriweather is going to start this week for the Bears against the Saints in New Orleans. It’€™ll be the first time Meriweather has faced the Saints since the Patriots were blown out of the Superdome in 2009, 38-17. It was an ugly game for New England, one that Meriweather remembers. ‘€œI dropped two picks that game,’€™’€™ Meriweather told the Chicago Tribune. ‘€œIt was very frustrating. Any time you get a chance to get a pick, you want to get it, especially when you’€™re going against an elite quarterback. That’€™s one of the balls you put up in your trophy room and brag about.’€™’€™

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Why Vince Wilfork has so much respect for Philip Rivers

09.17.11 at 5:38 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Philip Rivers has earned a reputation as being an emotional, confrontational and often fiery competitor on the field.

In some ways, the Chargers quarterback has brought an aggressive defensive mentality to the position.

Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork will be facing him on Sunday once again. And it’s no surprise Wilfork says he loves it, even when he’s on the receiving end.

It adds just that much more to the intensity of the game.

Read More: New England Patriots, nfl, Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers

When Tom Brady calls, Deion Branch will be ready to answer

09.17.11 at 5:26 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Deion Branch is ready for whenever Tom Brady finds his passing rhythm in a game.

On Monday night, it was the second half, as Brady targeted Branch six times and found him four times for 68 of his 93 receiving yards on the night as Branch opened up things on the edge while Brady was finding Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski over the middle.

And like Monday night, when the Patriots quarterback does, Branch plays a huge role.

In the drive following the fluke Brady interception that led to the game-tying score early in the third quarter, Branch caught three passes in four snaps, including back-to-back catches of 13 and 20 yards.

Brady knew Branch could exploit Dolphins corner Nolan Carroll, who was filling in for the cramping Vontae Davis. And Branch was ready.

The gameplan will no doubt be tweaked this Sunday when Branch goes up against the Chargers secondary, led by Eric Weddle and Bob Sanders.

Read More: Bob Sanders, Deion Branch, Eric Weddle, New England Patriots
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