Special teams errors doom Chargers in 21-13 loss to Patriots
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Chargers punt returner Travis Benjamin fielded the punt at his 11, running to his right to get to the ball just a step from the sideline.
Then he muffed it.
Picking up his fumble at the 8, he circled back toward the end zone in an attempt to make something out of the play. With three members of the New England coverage team closing in, he skidded to a stop just in front of the goal line.
And then he managed to make things even worse: Benjamin stutter-stepped backward into the end zone to avoid New England’s Brandon King, who was diving at his feet. The Chargers returner was quickly brought down for a safety that gave the Patriots a 9-7 lead and sent them on their way to a fourth straight victory. (There was also a holding penalty on the play against the Chargers, which was summarily declined.)
“Last week, he made a play on a punt return to help us win the game. This week he made a bad decision,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “That was a huge play in the game. You have to have some awareness of where you are on the football field. And he did not.”
The Chargers were toyed with by Tom Brady — at least until he got in field-goal range — and squelched by New England’s previously porous defense. But the Patriots’ almost-comical domination on special teams turned what could have been a routine victory by the defending Super Bowl champions into a slapstick farce.
In addition to the safety on a punt return, the Chargers also missed a field goal, gave up a 71-yard kickoff return to Dion Lewis and botched a series of kickoff returns that repeatedly left them inside their 20. Midway through the fourth quarter, after Los Angeles cut the deficit to five points and forced a punt, the Chargers committed two penalties on the return and got backed up from the 18-yard line to their 9.
“We knew coming in here that we couldn’t give that team anything,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “They are too good of a football team.”
But the turning point was Benjamin’s safety, which also gave the Patriots a short field. Starting at their 43, they moved into position for Stephen Gostkowski’s 25-yard field goal.
“Here we are punting the ball, giving the ball back to them, and at the end of the play, we’ve got 2 points, and we’re getting the ball back,” New England special teamer Matthew Slater said. “I think the guys were really feeding off the plays that a lot of us were making in the kicking game and that’s huge for us.”
Benjamin wasn’t the only problem for the Chargers — not by a long shot. Phillip Rivers managed just 192 passing yards — 51 on the failed final drive — against a defense that had been ranked last in the NFL. The L.A. defense was better, but forced just one three-and-out while allowing five drives of 10 plays or more.
Lynn said he used cornerback Michael Davis along with running back Austin Ekeler on kickoffs because previous returners hadn’t produced much. But that left the Chargers pinned inside their 25 four times.
“We were off our flow,” Ekeler said. “We weren’t as coordinated as well as we were last week, so we just started taking a knee in the end zone and taking the secure route. It wasn’t acceptable.”
Asked if he still had faith in Benjamin returning punts, Lynn noted that the receiver caught a 24-yard touchdown pass and had another score called back because of an illegal pick penalty. In last week’s victory over the Broncos — their third in a row — Benjamin pulled down a 42-yard TD catch and ran back a punt 65 yards for a score.
“It’s one of those things where no one played a perfect game,” Rivers said. “He’s going to tell you that you made a bad decision, and you move on and live with it. I made some myself today. ... We all had our share of mistakes, we just had too many to overcome.”
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