Kris Brown's 50-yard field goal attempt smacked off the right upright with 23 seconds left, allowing the Patriots to escape with a 23-20 win over the mistake-prone Chargers on Sunday.
Seven games into what was supposed to be coach Norv Turner's best season, the Chargers continue to make mystifying errors. Although the Patriots gained only 38 yards in the first half, they led 13-3 at halftime because the Chargers had four turnovers.
So while New England (5-1) pulled into a tie with the idle New York Jets atop the AFC East, the four-time defending AFC West champion Chargers tumbled to 2-5, their worst start in four seasons under Turner. They're tied for last with Denver, 2½ games behind the Kansas City Chiefs.
"I don't think we gave ourselves a chance," Turner said. "You do the things we did in the first half with the football and you're playing a real good team, it's tough. You're not going to win making these mistakes."
The Chargers, who trailed 20-3 heading into the fourth quarter, were in position to at least send it into overtime. They held New England to just 179 yards of offense.
Leading by 3 with two minutes left, New England gambled on fourth-and-1 from its 49, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis was stuffed for a 1-yard loss by Antwan Applewhite. Coach Bill Belichick had challenged the spot of the previous play and lost, costing him his final timeout. San Diego then moved to the 27.
Brown lined up to try a 45-yarder, but guard Louis Vasquez was whistled for a false start. Moved back 5 yards, Brown's attempt was long enough but hit the right upright. Brown was signed last week because Nate Kaeding has an injured groin.
"It just stayed down that hashmark. It just hit the upright," Brown said. "It's frustrating because I felt like I hit it pretty good. It just didn't go in."
New England's Vince Wilfork said it "played out how we wanted it to play out. We stayed onsides. They jumped. It moved them back 5 extra yards and it cost them the ballgame."
Stephen Gostkowski kicked field goals of 40, 35 and 35 yards for New England.
San Diego rallied for two touchdowns in the final 7:21. The Chargers got a 4-yard touchdown pass from Philip Rivers to Antonio Gates, and, after a successful onside kick, a 1-yard run by Mike Tolbert.
The Chargers, though, hurt themselves with four turnovers in the first half, leading to 10 points for the Patriots.
Two were mental blunders that the Patriots pounced on.
After making a 25-yard catch -- his first in the NFL -- and going down untouched by a defender, rookie receiver Richard Goodman left the ball on the ground, jumped up and applauded. New England safety James Sanders alertly picked up the ball. The Patriots failed to convert the gift.
Goodman said he thought the safety touched him. The Chargers were in hurry-up mode, and he said he was trying to get back to the huddle.
"I'll be the first one to admit that it was my fault," Goodman said. "I've got to learn from my mistakes. After making that catch, I've got to give it back to the ref."
The Chargers then drove to the New England 32. Rivers stepped up in the pocket, turned and threw a backward pass that glanced off fullback Jacob Hester's hands. Hester didn't go after it, apparently not realizing it was a lateral. Linebacker Rob Ninkovich did, returning it 63 yards before Rivers dragged him down at the 8. Turner challenged, but the play was upheld after review.
"I thought me and Philip were even, then when he threw it I reached for it and couldn't get it," Hester said. "It never even crossed my mind it was a backwards pass. Once I realized it and found the ball and tried to get it, it was too late. In that situation, you've got to make sure. Even if you think it's a forward pass, you've just got to go get it."
Said Belichick: "The whistle doesn't mean anything anymore. You just have to play. If the ball is loose, you've got to play it out. That's what we teach our guys to do. You play it out and ask questions later. Forget about the whistle."
Brady was sacked on consecutive plays and New England settled for Gostkowski's 40-yard field goal that made it 10-3.
New England's first score was set up when Chargers tight end Kris Wilson fumbled after an 11-yard catch, with linebacker Jerod Mayo recovering at the Chargers 22. On second-and-goal from the 1, Brady faked a handoff to Green-Ellis and found tight end Rob Gronkowski open in the end zone for a TD and a 7-3 lead.
New England opened the second half by moving 79 yards on a 17-play drive that consumed more than 8½ minutes. Green-Ellis scored on a 1-yard run to make it 20-3.
Brown made field goals of 32 and 28 yards.
The Patriots said they went for it on fourth down late because if they'd punted, the Chargers still had three timeouts to work with.
"If you get the yard, it's going to be tough for them to win," Brady said. "We have a lot of confidence in that play. You have to think you've got to be able to get the yard. We didn't execute very well."
Turner's overall record in three stints as an NFL head coach dropped to 92-103. ... Rivers threw for 336 yards and Brady had 159. ... Rivers had one more tackle than DE Luis Castillo.
- Tony Corrente