"Defensively," coach Bill Belichick said after Sunday night's 23-14 win at Qualcomm Stadium, "I can't say enough about that effort."
What impressed Belichick so much was that the Patriots had to do it without some key parts, such as do-everything linebacker Dont'a Hightower, whose injured right shoulder made him a pregame scratch. There was also hope that maybe pass-rushing defensive end Chandler Jones would return for the first time since injuring his hip Oct. 16, but that didn't happen, either.
So they pieced it together, with two players who weren't even with the team until late October -- defensive end Akeem Ayers (acquired Oct. 22 from Tennessee) and linebacker Jonathan Casillas (acquired Oct. 28 from Tampa Bay) -- playing key roles. Ayers' interception in the third quarter, which came five plays after the Patriots could have been deflated for having a 56-yard interception return for a touchdown called back by penalty, was one of the big plays in the game.
Second-year linebacker Jamie Collins was arguably the Patriots' best defensive player, with a team-high nine tackles, two sacks and a veteran's touch in taking over Hightower's duties leading the huddle. Then, of course, there were the old standbys in the secondary doing their thing -- cornerback Darrelle Revis blanketing receiver Keenan Allen (two catches, 3 yards) and Belichick throwing a bunch of different combinations at tight end Antonio Gates (five catches, 34 yards).
Up front, the Patriots pressured much more than the week before against the Green Bay Packers and took advantage of the Chargers' depleted, overmatched offensive line.
The result was Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was 2-for-10 on passes traveling more than 5 yards downfield, according to ESPN's Stats & Information, with the two completions on such throws the fewest he's had in a game since he became a full-time starter in 2006.
Talk about a defensive lockdown.
It turns out the Patriots needed it, given that their offense got bogged down in the red zone (one touchdown in four trips), had two uncharacteristic turnovers (Brandon LaFell's fumble returned 53 yards for a second-quarter touchdown and Tom Brady's interception right before the half) and opened the second half with four straight three-and-outs. It was ugly at times.
"If you would have told me that they were going to hold them to 23 and score a touchdown [on defense], I would have thought we would've won the game," lamented Rivers, who was sacked four times.
Added Brady, "That was the key to the whole game -- the way the defense played."
When that point was mentioned to Revis in the team's joyous locker room, he took a big-picture view of what had unfolded. This is Revis' eighth NFL season, and one gets the feeling he's appreciating it more and more each day.
"We have great character," he said. "I've been saying that all year -- guys stick in there and play within the game. Sometimes things are going to happen, and the offense might have to pick the defense up one game, and the defense might have to pick up the offense. Special teams might have to pick both sides of the ball up. We have to continue to execute our game plan throughout 60 minutes, and that's what we keep on doing."
Revis took it even further and said what the Patriots did was hatched after a most unique week that they spent practicing in San Diego.
"This was my first time doing this, and I think it was team bonding," he said. "Guys were hanging out with each other, spending time, and that's what you need. You need unity on the team, chemistry, especially coming off a loss in Green Bay. I think it was a good time for us."
As the Patriots left for their return flight home, they did so with not just a 10-3 record that keeps them atop the AFC but also a feeling that their week in San Diego brought them closer together. Making it a little sweeter was that seemingly half Qualcomm Stadium was filled with Patriots fans, which made this road game seem like a home game at times.
"Being in San Diego for a week gave us a chance to bond a little bit. Basically, we just hung out and talked football, ate together a lot, and talked about what it would take to win the ballgame," defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. "Everybody prepared well. We had three good practices. The focus was unbelievable."
And in the end, so was the defense.