Chargers slap reality check on Patriots

SAN DIEGO – With two seconds left in Sunday night’s game against the Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium, Patriots coach Bill Belichick called timeout to set up a final try at the end zone. The score was 30-10, but Belichick has long regarded the final stages of blowouts as learning experiences that can help his team down the road.

It was a lot like last year – outcome long since decided, Pats still trying to score. In this case, however, Belichick’s team was pretty far from being able to run it up.

Welcome to the new world order for New England, at least until Tom Brady returns in 2009. When the star quarterback went down in the opener with a season-ending knee injury, many analysts insisted that the Pats would remain an elite team, citing pride, coaching and a talent base that extended far beyond a single player’s greatness.

All of that is true, in theory. Belichick is a brilliant coach with capable assistants. Locker-room leaders such as Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Vince Wilfork and Matt Light won’t allow doom and gloom on their watch. And there are a lot of very good players on the Patriots, including a stellar group of defensive linemen and one of football’s best receiving tandems.

The problem, as we saw Sunday, is this: Against a good team playing at a high level, it simply doesn’t matter.

When Brady went down, the Patriots lost a three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback who cranked up his game in ’07 to throw an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes. In his place, New England turned to Matt Cassel, a dude who hadn’t started a game since high school.

What we saw Sunday wasn’t shocking. Brady covered up a lot of sins, and without him, the Pats’ vulnerabilities – in the secondary, in the no-longer-elite group of linebackers, in the lack of a dominant halfback and in a strangely declining offensive line – can and will be used against them. Cassel does some things well, but he’s generally stiff and deliberate, and when a team can apply inside pressure there isn’t much he can do to escape.

Photo Cassel was sacked four times by the Chargers.
(US Presswire/Christopher Hanewinckel)

He might get better, but not enough to allow New England to hang with a good team that can attack its secondary the way the Chargers did.

At the end of Sunday’s first half, according to an eyewitness, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel approached Belichick while walking off the field and engaged in a heated dialogue that appeared to be contentious. I can understand why either man would be frustrated. With Brady last season, the Pats were almost always the aggressors, and playing with early leads gave the defense confidence and the leeway to take some calculated risks.

Without him, everyone has to play (and coach) a bit more perfectly, and there’s a tendency to try to stay in games and look for a way to win them at the end, rather than coming out and taking a team apart – like San Diego did Sunday.

On Monday, Belichick tried to downplay the depth of the disparity between the two teams, claiming that except for a few rough moments the Patriots had held their own.

“There were a handful of plays that caused us a lot of trouble and unfortunately, it very much overrode the other plays, which we were competitive on,” Belichick told reporters in Foxborough, Mass. “I don’t think the competitiveness of the game was reflected in the score.”

That’s an interesting take for someone whose team was down 30-3 with 10:50 remaining in the game and had been outgained 357 to 172 yards to that point, but I understand what Belichick was doing. He has to say that stuff; otherwise, his players are in danger of considering the sordid truth: With Cassel at quarterback, they’re capable of remaining competitive with some teams, maybe even making a valiant run at the postseason. But when they go up against a truly powerful opponent, they don’t stand a chance.

Now for the questions you’ve been dying to have me ask, beginning with the new team I think is best and descending on down the food chain:

1. Tennessee Titans: When he found out Pacman Jones punched his bodyguard, how loudly was Jeff Fisher cackling?

2. New York Giants: No offense to li’l bro, but can we please stop with the “Eli is the best Manning” nonsense already?

3. Pittsburgh Steelers: Can you see any scenario under which this team won’t repeat as AFC North champion?

4. Washington Redskins: The next time Pete Kendall tries to run with the football, how many of his teammates will try to tackle him?

5. Dallas Cowboys: If Brad Johnson becomes Bad Johnson, how far will this talented team fall?

6. Buffalo Bills: Will they get shredded by Philip Rivers the way they did by Kurt Warner, or will the defense come back strong after the bye?

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Are they peaking early again, or are they simply getting better?

8. Jacksonville Jaguars: Is Marcedes Lewis becoming David Garrard’s favorite target, and have he and Cadillac Williams thought about co-hosting a celebrity road rally for charity?

9. Carolina Panthers: Did John Fox let his players spend a curfew-free Saturday night at Mons Venus, or were they flat in Tampa for other reasons?

10. Denver Broncos: Can they stop a good team when it counts?

11. San Diego Chargers: Did Quentin Jammer eat his Wheaties on Sunday, or what?

12. Arizona Cardinals: If I told you that Sean Morey’s wife, Cara, could check you hard against the boards and look damn good while doing it, would you respect his winning punt block that much more?

13. Atlanta Falcons: Given what he’s done for this formerly flailing franchise, shouldn’t Mike Smith at least get a non-boring nickname?

14. Green Bay Packers: After watching him hang in and deliver that go-ahead, 45-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings on Sunday, is there anyone still questioning Aaron Rodgers’ toughness?

15. Minnesota Vikings: Is anyone better on third-and-very-long than Gus Frerotte?

16. Chicago Bears: Why do I have this feeling that Lovie Smith squib-kicked the trash cans in front of his house late Sunday night?

17. Indianapolis Colts: Yo, Marvin – was that you?

18. New Orleans Saints: What would happen if Drew Brees hooked up with this receiver?

19. Philadelphia Eagles: Am I the only one who’s a little disturbed that Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb just broke Bill Walsh and Joe Montana’s record for most wins by a coach-quarterback combo?

20. New England Patriots: That goal-line pass to Mike Vrabel doesn’t look so smooth with a certain quarterback missing, does it?

21. New York Jets: Given that Eric Mangini named his previous son after Bill Belichick, should Brett Favre be worried?

22. Miami Dolphins: Instead of Obama-McCain III, is there any way we could watch Joey Porter debate Ed Hochuli on Wednesday night?

23. Baltimore Ravens: Hey, Coach Harbaugh, are you sure about that proclamation that Joe Flacco is your starter for the rest of the season?

24. Cleveland Browns: If loving Eric is wrong, do Browns fans not want to be Wright?

25. Houston Texans: Were thousands of Texans fans roasting turkeys on Sunday, or were they actually calling for a quarterback who’d blown the previous game by turning over the ball three times in the final four minutes?

26. San Francisco 49ers: If you’re Mike Nolan, who else would you want deciding whether to issue replay challenges than the man who knows everything about everything?

27. St. Louis Rams: Would you believe me if I told you that this is the only team that might be able to challenge the Cardinals for the NFC West title?

28. Cincinnati Bengals: Given Carson Palmer’s elbow problems, shouldn’t someone be on the phone with the Lions trying to reacquire Jon Kitna?

29. Oakland Raiders: Yo, Al Davis – think Reggie Bush and one of his former college coaches exchanged jubilant text messages Sunday night?

30. Seattle Seahawks: Hey, Jimmy Mora – are you sure you want this job?

31. Kansas City Chiefs: Has Tony Gonzalez played his last game with the Chiefs, and if so, can you blame him?

32. Detroit Lions: After the Lions returned from Minneapolis, was that Dan Orlovsky driving home from the airport on the freeway shoulder?