Close win a good sign for Patriots team now back at .500

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The Patriots haven’t played their best football in close games this season.

A red zone fumble by Damien Harris cost them late against Miami in the season opener. A stalled drive and missed field goal ended their comeback hopes against Tom Brady and Tampa Bay. And a short possession and punt in overtime helped Dallas pull out an overtime victory.

New England looked headed for a similar fate Sunday, trailing 17-16 with the Chargers driving early in the fourth quarter.

But a pick-6 by Adrian Phillips and field goal by Nick Folk helped the Patriots secure a 27-24 win, just their second victory in a one-score game this season.

New England (4-4) has won two straight and three of its last four — its best stretch of the season. It also marked the Patriots’ first win this season over a team above .500.

A big reason is the play of a defense that is enjoying its best stretch of the season, notching eight takeaways over the last four games.

“Great teams win the close games,” Phillips said. “We need to keep stringing these along. Earlier in the season, we were losing those. It was a mistake here and there. ... But we knew if we want to take this season where we want to take it, you have to win those close games.”

The offense struggled at times, but avoided the crucial late-game miscues that hurt it early in the year.

“When you get a chance to have the ball, you have to put points up," quarterback Mac Jones said. "“It’s always great to see the offense move the ball and score points. I love it.”

It’s all positive signs for the Patriots heading into a three-game stretch against Carolina, Cleveland and Atlanta, three teams who are a combined 11-12 this season.

While he’s pleased with his team’s progress, coach Bill Belichick hopes it is still carrying the lessons it learned from losses earlier in the season as well.

“We’ve had games go the other way that we’ve had to learn from those, too,” he said. “That’s the NFL season. It’s a roller-coaster.”

WHAT’S WORKING

The run game had another strong outing, accounting for 141 of New England’s 352 yards. Harris carried most of the load, rushing 23 times for 80 yards and a touchdown.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The Patriots haven’t gone for it much on fourth down this season, converting on just three of four attempts entering Sunday. Their play calling on their lone attempt Sunday — a fourth-and-goal on the 1 in the second quarter — ended with a misfired fade pass from Jones to Jakobi Meyers. The play was head scratching considering the Chargers came in ranked last in the NFL against the run.

STOCK UP

Folk kept the Patriots in the game, going 4 for 4 on field goals. It included a pair of makes from 48 yards. He has connected on his last 10 attempts over the past four games and continues to prop up the offense when it has had issues finishing drives.

STOCK DOWN

Jones had his lowest completion percentage (51%) and second-lowest passer rating (71) of the season against Los Angeles. It occurred on a day when he faced multiple blitzes from the Chargers, who mixed in several five-man fronts throughout the game.

INJURIES

Officially, the Patriots didn’t have a player suffer an injury in the win. That’s huge for a team that had to make several adjustments over the past month because of players being sidelined.

KEY NUMBER

3-1 — The Patriots’ record this season when Jones doesn’t have a turnover. He hasn’t registered a turnover for two straight games.

NEXT STEPS

New England stays on the road, visiting a Carolina team which snapped a four-game losing streak at Atlanta.

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More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

Kyle Hightower, The Associated Press

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