The engines on the Chargers’ buses revved on the interstate, as the team traveled north past a beautiful autumn landscape in New England to meet the Patriots.
For weeks, their speed had been building. Wins against the New York Giants, the Oakland Raiders and the Denver Broncos pressed the accelerator closer to the floor.
But once the team made its way to Gillette Stadium for a rainy Sunday afternoon of football, the Chargers didn’t just get stopped in their tracks. They dropped the whole transmission, changing gears from drive to reverse.
Costly mistakes, such as the curious punt return that Travis Benjamin ran backward into the end zone and was tackled for a safety, were too much to overcome against the defending Super Bowl champs, the Chargers losing 21-13.
Benjamin’s gaffe — he dropped a punt at the 11, recovered the muff at the eight, reversed field and retreated into the end zone before being tackled — was the biggest mistake of the day. It wasn’t the only one.
The Chargers had two touchdowns negated by penalties. They whiffed on tackles as if they were trying to launch a Justin Verlander fastball. They committed 10 penalties, including an offsides called on the opening kick of the second half. That led to a second kickoff and a 71-yard return by the Patriots’ Dion Lewis.
“When you make those kinds of mistakes against a world championship team — and that’s who they are — then it’s hard to win,” said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who was outdueled by Tom Brady, 333 yards to 212.
“You can beat some teams making the mistakes we made today and you overcome them. …But you do that against this group, you’re not going to win.”
Benjamin’s mistake came in the first half after the Chargers were off to a strong start. Despite a missed 51-yard field goal on the opening drive, running back Melvin Gordon got the Chargers on the board first, tying a franchise record with an 87-yard touchdown run. The Patriots tied it with a methodical, 14-play drive that ended with a Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski touchdown to open the second quarter, but the Chargers were beginning to make more plays.
On New England’s next drive, strong coverage and a Joey Bosa sack forced a punt, but Benjamin couldn’t hang on to the football. After he recovered the ball, he tried to reverse field and run from the right sideline to the left, but his internal GPS must’ve been on the fritz and he ended up running backward.
“It was a huge play in the game,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “You have to have some awareness as to where you are on the football field. He did not.”
Benjamin was easily tackled in the end zone for a safety — the first coming on a punt return in 14 years. Eleven plays later, New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski made the first of four field goals and the Chargers never recovered.
“I would say those five points made a big difference in the game,” Lynn said.
Those points mattered, as did the 14 that were taken off the scoreboard thanks to penalties on wide receiver Tyrell Williams.
In the third quarter after stopping the Patriots on three plays to force a punt, the Chargers picked up a first down and took a shot down the field. Rivers found the speedy Williams gliding down the far sideline, but, like Benjamin, the GPS was a little faulty.
Williams ran out of bounds on his route and then back in on his way past the defender, catching the ball in the end zone. The officials noticed and correctly flagged him, negating the catch.
On the team’s next drive, Rivers found Benjamin streaking across the field — similarly to how the Chargers scored their final touchdown against Denver a week ago — and hit him in stride for a 41-yard score.
But as Benjamin crossed the field, Williams ran into a New England defender, drawing a penalty for offensive pass interference and wiping out the score.
“I thought it was good. I was just trying to get out of the way. We hit each other; they thought it was a pick play,” Williams said. “I was avoiding him, and he went into me. It is what it is. That one hurts because it took a touchdown away from my boy.”
The Chargers eventually got Benjamin in the end zone — the right one this time — on a 24-yard pass from Rivers in the fourth, but the Chargers’ final two chances, one to take a lead and the second to tie, couldn’t crack the end zone.
Sunday marked the Chargers’ fifth loss this season — all by eight points or fewer. Twenty-two of the team’s past 28 losses have been decided by a single score.
“Our guys compete every week. We’re always going to have a chance to win the game, I believe,” Lynn said. “They kept themselves in the game even though we didn’t play our best football. That last drive, I assumed like I always do that we were going to go score. But, we felt short.”
Still, there’s optimism inside the Chargers’ locker room as they head into their off week. Things could be much worse. The hope is Sunday was just a temporary step in reverse.
“I obviously believe we can win every game, but sitting there at 0-4, I said if we can somehow get to 3-5 at the bye, we’ll be in the hunt. And we did that,” Rivers said. “[But] it should’ve been 4-4.”