FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – So, where to begin after this one?

With Tom Brady, who became first quarterback in NFL history to follow a 500-yard passing game with a 400-yard passing game?

With Deion Branch, who, despite not catching a pass in the preseason, now has 15 catches in two games, including eight for 129 yards in the New England Patriots 35-21 victory over the San Diego Chargers at Gillette Stadium Sunday?

Nope.

How about the defense.

Yes, the defense that gave up 29 first downs, 470 total yards and allowed the Chargers to go 10 of 12 in third-down conversions.

Why?

Because when it mattered most, the Patriots defense made plays. Two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. And, of course, the goal-line stand, the single-biggest stop in the game. That’s when Jerod Mayo knifed through the line to cut down Mike Tolbert on fourth down from the 1 for no gain in the second quarter with the Patriots up by just three.

“Huge,” said Bill Belichick, the coach of the Patriots who never overestimates anything. “They were down there for four plays, so it was huge for us.”

The Patriots defenders know they have to improve, that there’s going to be a week when Brady can’t throw for over 400 yards. But for now, said linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who recovered one of the fumbles, “at the end of the day, we’re still winning.”

The Patriots have seemingly always employed a bend-but-don’t-break defense, especially in their Super Bowl-winning years. But this team has holes. The secondary is suspect and the pass rush is, well, not there yet.

So it’s up to them to make big plays. Mayo made the first — and biggest — play. The Chargers, down 10-7, had the Patriots reeling and moved to a first down at the Patriots 5. Ryan Mathews ran to the 2. Tolbert rushed for no gain. Philip Rivers got to within a foot of the goal line.

“We thought we had a chance to get a touchdown,” said Norv Turner, the Chargers’ coach.

Tolbert ran right, behind an extra blocker, but was cut down by Mayo, slicing through the line, and was stopped at the 1.

“Those guys up front did an excellent job allowing me to run free,” said Mayo, who finished with a team-high 11 tackles. “I don’t even think I hit an offensive lineman. I went straight to (Tolbert). He’s a stocky guy, a tough runner and pretty much I just had to get real low on him.”

The offense responded with a 99-yard scoring drive for a 17-7 lead.

“You have to do that, you have to take that energy and turn it into points,” said left tackle Matt Light. “Or at least get better field position. Look we’ve had a couple of drives early in the season that we’ve gone the distance and that’s demoralizing (to the opposing defense).”

Vince Wilfork — yes, the 325-pound Vince Wilfork — dropped into coverage and intercepted a Rivers pass, returning it 28 yards. That led to a field goal just before the half for a 20-7 lead.

With San Diego trailing 20-14 in the fourth, Mayo stripped Tolbert of the ball and Ninkovich recovered, leading to another touchdown.

Yes, the Chargers moved the ball. But the Patriots made defensive plays when they needed to.

“Obviously we care (about the yards),” said Mayo. “But first and foremost you want to get the win. And I think those turnovers really helped us go out and score. At the end of the day it’s all about the win. And the turnovers. The turnover factor is a direct correlation to wins and losses.”

And right now it’s the Patriots defense that’s making the plays.

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

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Twitter: MikeLowePPH