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San Diego Chargers running back Mike Tolbert #35 is tackled by linebacker Rob Ninkovich #50 of the New England Patriots in the second half at Gillette Stadium on September 18, 2011 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
The failed tries at the goal line. The interception that erased a field-goal attempt. The interception in the red zone. The fumble when their downhill runner wandered uphill. The sack-fumble that sealed their fate.
The 2011 San Diego Chargers took their first bite Sunday of that bitter two-word phrase, which has defined the franchise's past seven seasons of almost-great football.
This eighth season won't be defined by a Week 2 taste test. Only how they react to it.
The Chargers went toe-to-toe with the precision of the New England Patriots and shot themselves in the foot, committing turnovers and uncapitalized scoring chances while forcing neither in a 35-21 loss at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
These Chargers are a new, different football team, but they repeated the same mistakes as the old one; Sunday's 4-0 turnover differential was the same as last year's meeting in San Diego. The four turnovers were also the same as when the Chargers lost to the Patriots in the 2007 season's AFC Championship.
Now, spit it out.
“You've got to finish,” said wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who set career highs with 10 catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns. “As an offense our goal is to score points and our defense's goal is to stop them. Special teams' is obviously field position and taking care of the ball. You've got to come away with the points, field goals or touchdowns — that's our job. We'll go back, look at this film and we'll be better prepared next week.”
The mistake that stood out most — and to pin the entire game on it would hardly be fair — came in the fourth quarter during the afternoon's greatest momentum swing.
The Chargers (1-1) forced quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots (2-0), whose punter Zoltan Mesko left the game with an injury, off the field on four downs at San Diego's 49-yard line. Trailing 20-14 with 11:41 remaining, quarterback Philip Rivers took over and had his offense clicking.
He tossed a 12-yard pass to running back Ryan Mathews. He hit Mathews again for five yards.
Then on second down, running back Mike Tolbert tried to do too much on what was destined to be a short run up the middle, hopping backward like Barry Sanders about to make a big play.
And it was.
Linebacker Jerod Mayo stripped him, and linebacker Rob Ninkovich recovered. Back came Brady, and four plays later, the Patriots were celebrating again in the end zone.
The Chargers belonged on the same field as the Patriots.
They had more first downs (29 to 28), converted essential third downs (10 of 12) and even stayed on the field longer with 30:58 in time of possession. From a yardage standpoint, they totaled 470 net yards, just 34 yards short of the uptempo assault paced by Brady, who threw for 423 yards after an NFL-record 517 the week prior.
But the Patriots deserved the credit and the win.They forced the mistakes the Chargers could not.
They stopped Tolbert on 4th and goal from the 1-yard line in the first quarter. Their defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, all 325 pounds, undercut a Rivers pass in the flats for Wilfork's first career interception. Their safety Sergio Brown made his first pick since high school on an underthrown pass to tight end Antonio Gates, who has held catchless. Their defensive end Mark Patterson sacked Rivers from behind, causing a fumble that sealed the game.
They gave this new Chargers team a taste.
What they do with it is up to them.
“You know, I am so excited about our football team,” coach Norv Turner said. “And I have told them a number of times, I don't even refer to this group as to comparing it to anywhere with last year's team. This year's team is this year's team. And I am excited about where this team can go.
“We have a lot of work to do, like every team in the league, but I can't wait until (Monday) and get back there with them and start working on things we need to get better at. And obviously, when you have a game like this, you can't wait to go play again.”