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Chargers finally knock off Patriots

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Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego Chargers spent all last week downplaying the suggestion they have a rivalry brewing with New England.

They were right.

The way they played Sunday night, the Chargers had no rival.

And for once, New England had no chance.

Playing as if the cork finally popped on two years of bottled-up anger and frustration, the Chargers won, 30-10, exacting a fistful of overdue punishment on a franchise that knocked them out of the last two postseasons.

On one side, there was no Tom Brady. On the other, no Shawne Merriman. Regardless, slugging the Patriots with four solid quarters of efficient football felt awfully good to a San Diego team in search of an identity.

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“It wasn’t necessarily a payback game at all, because it doesn’t replace those last three losses,” said quarterback Philip Rivers, also referring to a 24-point loss at New England a year ago. “But it was big to beat these guys, and the main reason it was big was because of the situation we were in.”

The Chargers, a popular preseason Super Bowl pick, were desperate for a victory after losing three of their first five games. They also wanted to take advantage of their last home game this month. They play at Buffalo on Sunday, then head for London for a Oct. 26 game against New Orleans before taking a week off. Beating New England (4-2) could represent a turning point in their season.

It also helped close the gap in the AFC West. With Denver losing to Jacksonville, the 3-3 Chargers were able to trim the Broncos’ division lead to one game.

But all that number crunching doesn’t describe the emotional lift of beating the Patriots, and doing it in grand style -- everything from a goal-line stand by San Diego’s defense, to a spectacular game by Rivers. He threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns, and was scarcely touched, let alone sacked. It was his first career 300-yard game before a home crowd.

San Diego’s defense sacked Matt Cassel four times and put the clamps on receiver Randy Moss, who caught three passes for 26 yards. The Patriots’ only touchdown was a cosmetic one, coming with little more than five minutes remaining.

The defining stretch of the game came early in the third quarter, when the Patriots seemed to be clawing their way back into contention. Trailing 17-3, they resorted to an empty-backfield, spread offense to dink and dunk their way deep into Chargers territory.

The Patriots created mismatches -- San Diego linebackers lined up at cornerback and the like -- and moved to within a yard of the end zone. And that’s when, on four consecutive plays, the visitors were stuffed. In fact, they lost a yard.

That’s when the Chargers threw their knockout punch. Four plays. Ninety-eight yards. Touchdown.

“You go from, they have a chance to cut it to seven, to you’re up 21, just like that in a five-play span,” Rivers said. “I get in the huddle. . . . and say, ‘Hey guys, let’s go 98.’ And then when it happens, you feel like you got them going.”

Those 98 yards essentially 86’d the Patriots, who beat San Francisco a week earlier, then prepared to play the Chargers by holding practices at San Jose State. The loss ended their 12-game road winning streak.

Even more impressive, the Chargers won without star receiver Chris Chambers, who has five touchdowns but sat out with a sore ankle. Fellow receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd picked up the slack, combining for eight catches and two touchdowns.

That tone was set early. On the first play of the game, Rivers went deep to Jackson for a 48-yard gain, sending a resounding message that these weren’t the same slow-starting Chargers who meandered through the first five games.

Whereas the Chargers were quick to get going, the Qualcomm Stadium crowd was slow to leave. Long after the outcome was no longer in doubt, thousands of Chargers fans lingered to savor the landmark victory. For the first time under Coach Bill Belichick the Patriots have lost two games in a season by 20 or more points.

At the end came a standing ovation for a San Diego team uncorked, unburdened and -- for a night at least -- unrivaled.

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sam.farmer@latimes.com


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