October 1, 2016

Game Day Rear View, Edition 2004, Volume 7

October 31, 2004
Steelers vs. Patriots
At Heinz Field, Steelers WIN, 34-20
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

You don稚 get there by making excuses.

You don稚 get to be champions � twice � by making excuses. So let痴 not start now.

The Patriots were thoroughly outclassed by the Pittsburgh Steelers today, losing ignominiously at Heinz Field by the deceptively close score of 34-20. The Steelers were just being kind, I think, but by the end, everybody knew that the Greater Pittsburgh area was officially the Patriots� daddy.

You can talk all you want about Corey Dillon, Ty Law, Matt Light and whoever else, but answer me this. The Patriots made their bones by remaining oblivious to every injury and obstacle in their path. No excuses. So why should today be different?

No, the injuries didn稚 kill the Patriots. The Steelers killed the Patriots.

They killed them along the line of scrimmage, offense and defense. They killed them from pillar to post. The Pittsburgh Steelers won every physical battle, earned every edge, and just generally waxed the backsides of the New England Patriots in a game that will almost certainly reverberate beyond today.

It was the first Patriots loss since September 28, 2003.

But that doesn稚 matter a bit now, does it? What matters today is that they got their lunches handed to them in a conference game against an opponent they may well see again. What matters is that they lost one of those tiebreakers that you end up nervously checking every week in December. You know the kind. The kind where you end up having a stroke while watching a Cleveland-Pittsburgh game on some Saturday afternoon just before Christmas.

Maybe this seems like nitpicking to you, but if it痴 the difference between a first round bye, or a home playoff game, I壇 say that was pretty important, wouldn稚 you? Important enough that you shouldn稚 get blown off the field by anybody, anywhere, not even by the mighty (today) Pittsburgh Steelers.

Yeah, they started without their lynchpin running back, and they lost their most decorated defender, and they had a patchwork offensive line, but you know what? Go sell your soap somewhere else, sister. They didn稚 get there by making excuses.

Don稚 make any for them now.

Patriots on Offense

There is one thing certain in life: you are not going to win a football game when your offensive line gets blown up the field every play like a mess of unraked leaves.

That痴 it. You don稚 need to say another word about the offense today. Just that the Patriots are not going to win any games when their offensive line plays like that.

It was their worst performance in God knows when. They got pushed around on the run and flattened in pass protection. If they were a dike, we壇 be underwater. They were physically and mentally bettered in every sense of the word, from the opening gun to last sad whimpers. With this effort on the horizon, the game was over before it started.

That doesn稚 exempt the 壮kill� players, except for David Givens, who can稚 be expected to carry the entire team by himself. Tom Brady was far more anchor than sail this week. Never more than when he committed two consecutive spleen-ripping 1st quarter turnovers (including a 39 yard interception return for touchdown by Deshea Townsend) that left the Pats in a 21-3 hole. He never was comfortable in the pocket (sacked four times and rarely had room to step up) and never seemed a serious threat to lead the Pats back, even when he ran off another two-minute drill touchdown to close it to 24-10 at the half.

Listen to me. Kevin Faulk is not a three down back. He will never be a three down back. Do not ask him to be something he痴 not. When you do, the result will not � ever – be positive.

I understand the Pats were in a pinch with Dillon out, and Faulk is a trusted veteran, but for crying out loud, run Cedric Cobbs out there. Faulk, a very productive specialist and playmaker, didn稚 measure up as a lead when it came time to establish the run, and even worse, contributed to the Patriots� rich tapestry of devastating turnovers with a fumbled pass that led � surprise! � to a Steelers touchdown.

Faulk痴 fumble came on the first play of the second half, and ended any brief flirtations the Patriots may have had with the comparatively slim two touchdown deficit. Game over, which was disappointing considering there were still almost 30 minutes to play.

Three times the Patriots had turned the ball over on the first play of a drive, and three times the Steelers had a touchdown on a short field. I can稚 imagine why they lost by 14 points.

Anyway, moral of the story, when you致e got the opposing defense gearing up to stop Kevin Faulk, there痴 going to be trouble. The Patriots have to do a better job at finding a lead runner to carry the egg when Dillon cannot.

Patriots on Defense

Like we said earlier, this game was won and lost along the line of scrimmage. Mostly lost.

The Patriots defensive front seven was as embarrassed as their offensive (literally) colleagues by the physically superior Steelers. Though it seemed at first they would be able to slow down the Pittsburgh running attack, the Pats D gradually wilted under the strain of short fields and three touchdown deficits. By the end of the game, both Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis ran freely through a totally whipped New England defense.

The same weak front plagued the pass defense, and as a result, rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger will be a whole lot more famous tomorrow morning. You know how we love stories, and this one痴 made to order � rookie QB beats pants off rookie QB-killing defense and coaching staff.

With no pass rush, and nobody ever able to lay a mitt on him, Roethlisberger hit on 75% of his passes and led the Steelers to more than 400 total yards. Look, the kid threw two nice touchdowns to Plaxico Burress, and he never once turned it over, but it just seems to me Ben Roethlisberger got the impression this whole thing was pretty easy today, and that makes me mad as hell.

Nobody could cover Burress once Law left the game in the first quarter with a leg injury. Rookie Randall Gay got burned for a 47 yard touchdown bomb the play after Law left, and Eugene Wilson was later badly outfought on a Burress fade route. In other news, Hines Ward was his usual pain-in-the-ass self. Thanks to him and his friends, the Patriots could never get off the field on third down.

Patriots on Special Teams

What friggin� difference does it make?

Patriots on the Sidelines

I知 not sure the Patriots didn稚 have a good enough plan to beat the Steelers today. I知 not sure it wasn稚 simply a matter of players not making plays.

Still, when your team gets manhandled like that, as if they were completely overmatched, in a game not without meaning, it痴 hard to say you had a good coaching week.

Patriots Next Week

Another road game, this one against an NFC opponent, as the 6-1 Pats head to St. Louis for a Super Bowl rematch with the Rams. I知 sure that痴 how the Rams will see it. We, on the other hand, should be happy with a pulse.

Game Day Rear View, Edition 2004, Volume 6

October 24, 2004
Jets vs. Patriots
At Gillette Stadium, Patriots WIN, 13-7
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

Let痴 talk for a minute about this thing we call The Fourth Wall.

The website wordspy.com says the term 礎reaking the fourth wall� originated in theater circles, to describe the moment when an actor breaks away from a fictional scene to directly address the real live audience.

Well, it used to mean that. The term has been redefined, out of necessity really. Because we Internet Heroes needed a succinct phrase to describe that moment when we finally come face to face with the people we致e been anonymously – and quite safely, mind you – insulting for months.

A small but plucky group of Boston Sports Media Watch message board posters decided months ago that The Fourth Wall would come down forever on October 24, 2004, when the Patriots hosted the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium.

I don稚 mind telling you, I was a little intimidated. It was the oddest thing � here I was about to meet four of the people that I have engaged in a stream-of-consciousness running dialogue with for almost a year, and the only thing I could think of as I neared the stadium was 努hat in the hell am I going to say to these people?�

I guess the first thing would be 展here ARE you guys?�

There I was, trying to connect with the group of my fellow media-watching ruffians. Problem is I知 parked over by the stadium, and they池e parked in North Attleboro somewhere. Also, I have absolutely no idea what these people look like. Don稚 want to leave that little qualifier out.

After a fairly typical 層hy don稚 you ask somebody� exchange between my girlfriend and I, relative to finding the lot where my cyber-pals were parked (Her, exasperated: 努hy don稚 you ask somebody?� Me, scanning the sea of cars and people on the horizon: 努e don稚 need to ask anybody.�), we pulled out the cell phone.

I managed to raise one of my fellow miscreants, and we went through a set of directions that sounded like an episode of The Amazing Race (徹kay, look for the water tower. See the walking bridge? Walk through six lanes of traffic. Ignore that cop yelling. Now grab the clue!�). He guided us home until we found the lot and the awaiting tailgate festivities, mostly by process of elimination.

Let it be known that The Fourth Wall officially came down at approximately 12:30 p.m. yesterday when the poster known as 全anderson� and I walked right past each other, cell phones at our ears, each oblivious to the other as we searched for someone who, I guess, looked approximately like our message board avatar.

Hey, give us credit. He only got about 200 yards past me before we figured it out. It was the quintessential Fourth Wall moment, a singular second of weird poetry that made the whole damn thing worthwhile.

But there were a lot of other good moments. Finally shaking the hand of my partner-in-crime and chief foil, the poster lovingly known everywhere as 閃ark�, and enjoying the high comedy of being called 礎ub� in real time. Watching someone previously known to us only as 閃r. Magoo� graciously hurry around his completely outfitted tailgate setup (imagine the Stones� stage set-up for the 全teel Wheels� tour, only with stronger football overtones) making sure we had warm food in our stomachs and cold beers in our hands. Exchanging nervous glances and deep, cleansing breaths with the poster known as 銭ingasaurus� as the Jets drove for a possible winning score with only minutes to play.

Here痴 what I now know about The Fourth Wall. It really doesn稚 exist. Despite the warnings of Internet skeptics everywhere, people don稚 invent on-line personas to mask their deep-seeded real-life insecurities. That痴 urban legend (in other words, bullshit), propagated by the same people who regularly and summarily dismiss message boards and their participants, even though you get the feeling they never take their eyes off them.

Look, I致e been to the other side now, and I知 telling you, people are just what they say they are, even on the Internet. They were funny, they were sarcastic, they were prescient, and they were hospitable in words and deeds. They weren稚 a damn bit different from the people I致e 遡nown� now for more than a year. There wasn稚 a thing done or said by anyone that surprised me in the least.

I think that痴 just about the best news I致e had all week.

The game? Oh, yeah. Good news � The King and I were finally able to exhale, and the Patriots remained perfect with a bruising 13-7 win over divisional rival New York (yes, yes, the Yankees suck, I know). The Pats ruined the Jets perfect record and seized early control of the AFC East.

And a renegade band of Internet Heroes climbed out of the basement and into the sunlight (well, drizzle actually) without breaking anything. Except a fictional wall, I guess.

Patriots on Offense

Can you tell I致e run out of things to say about our New England Patriots?

I have to admit, I知 not the most qualified person to comment on yesterday痴 proceedings. Thanks for that go to that thoughtful lady sitting directly in front of me, who reflexively stood straight up (and in my line of vision) anytime the Patriots did anything. I知 sorry, but I don稚 usually stand up for one yard losses on 2nd and 7.

Here痴 what I did see. I saw Tom Brady complete almost 75% of his passes, despite a constant spritzing by the sky and an occasionally cranky Jets pass rush. I saw Corey Dillon mercilessly bang away at another defense until they wearily stepped aside and let him crank off another 40 yard run. I saw David Givens lead a depleted receiving corps by making one tough catch after another. I saw Kevin Faulk come off the bench to run his menu of draws and screens that � as usual � extended a crucial scoring drive. I saw David Patten work his way across the back of a crowded end zone to score the game痴 last (and biggest) touchdown just seconds before the half.

Two key passages:

1) After two early Pats field goals, Chad Pennington chewed up almost eight minutes of 2nd quarter clock before rolling left for a one-yard scoring run that put the Jets up with less than two minutes to play in the half. The offense responded with no huddle, shotgun scoring drive (featuring Faulk) that ended when Brady deftly stepped up to avoid a rush inside the Jet 10 before drilling a fastball at Patten, who appeared to be running his route through a human jungle gym of New York defenders. Touchdown Patriots. The New England spoilsports had allowed the Jets to enjoy the lead for all of 1 minute and 50 seconds.

2) Later, here came the Jets again, this time driving for a go-ahead score as the game reached its conclusion. Even when Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison and Randall Gay conspired to stop the Jets without a score, the two minute warning and two Jet time outs remained. Plain and simple, the Patriots needed one more first down. In one of the most predictable scripts this side of Everybody Loves Raymond, the Patriots rode Dillon left, up the middle and left again for 12 yards and the game-sealing first down. The fact that it was so predictable made it all the more beautiful.

Patriots on Defense

Yeah, the Patriots occasionally had trouble getting off the field on third down, and Pennington (though throwing a football that seemed to be made of balsa wood) found his share of open receivers, but let me ask you two questions: how many points did the Jets score? And who won?

As noted above, the Pats key stops of the day were made when the Jets frighteningly drove towards a winning score as the game dipped inside the three minute mark. On a 3rd and 5 from the Pats 27, McGinest and Seymour burst deep into the New York backfield to pummel Curtis Martin for a 3 yard loss. The play never developed thanks to the push of the Patriots defensive right edge. I値l say it again: there is no bigger defensive playmaker on the Patriots than Willie McGinest. I would argue that it痴 not even close.

Then, forced to go on 4th down, the Jets spread the field with receivers and tried to hit the ancient Wayne Chrebet as he moved from the right slot towards the end zone. Not happening. Rookie Gay (another strong effort by the undrafted free agent) and veteran Harrison combined to build a wall in front of Chrebet and knock the pass to the ground, effectively squashing New York痴 last and best chance to win the game.

I don稚 think this year痴 version of the Pats defense can be measured on the same scale as their 2003 predecessors. I知 not sure the numbers will as easily quantify them, as last year痴 shutouts and league leading statistics did. But let me say this: this version has a decidedly better W-L record at this point in the season. Counts for something.

A final note: somebody tell me the last time Ted Johnson played that well. Holy smoke. He痴 certainly re-emerged as a major cog in the Patriots run defense this year, but for crying out loud, he looked like a first-team Pro Bowler yesterday. Wow.

Patriots on Special Teams

Adam Vinatieri hit two field goals that provided the winning margin. Bethel Johnson made another big play by returning a Jets kickoff 38 yards, which shortened the field for Brady and set up the Patten touchdown. And something you notice more in person than on TV: Rabih Abdullah is a pretty good freaking special teams player.

Patriots on the Sidelines

Sign you池e getting old: you can稚 tell the difference between Bill Belichick and Charlie Weis from where you池e sitting.

Best line of the day: my friend Mark referring to a curious and seemingly misplaced Faulk draw play during the touchdown drive as 敵round Chuck.�

Patriots Next Week

Pats and Steelers in Pittsburgh. I could make reference to the several hundred times the exceedingly lucky Patriots have dashed the hopes of the humble and hardworking Steelers, but I won稚. Here痴 my alternative theme for this week – Josh Miller triumphantly returns to Heinz Field. Note to self – we致e got to be careful which hash marks we have him kicking from.

Game Day Rear View, Edition 2004, Volume 5

October 17, 2004
Seahawks vs. Patriots
At Gillette Stadium, Patriots WIN, 30-20
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

Someone痴 going to have to get up really early to slip one by these New England Patriots.

Someone almost did today � almost � but now, safely in the aftermath of the Patriots see-saw, 30-20 home win over the Seattle Seahawks this afternoon, the only thing that matters is that they didn稚.

The rest of the NFL has to be wondering what its going to take to hang a loss on the Patriots. Once again, the defending champs won a game by making all the plays that make all the difference. Same story, 20 straight episodes. They always find a way.

Like today. The fact that today痴 素ind a way� play was made, improbably, by a petulant, previously-inactive, umbrella-swinging second year wide receiver can稚 make the situation any less vexing for New England痴 rivals.

For while there, it seemed like today was the day the rest of the NFL would finally catch up to the Patriots. This game had so many momentum shifts, at one point all my furniture slid to one side of the room. The Patriots absolutely rolled over the Seahawks in the first half, driving the ball at will on Seattle痴 defense and wreaking turnover-happy havoc with their prized offense. The Pats hit the break with a 20-6 lead and the game seemingly in control.

But the half brought new life to Seattle, and when the Patriots suffered a rare fourth quarter stumble, the Seahawks were there to close the game to within three points with three minutes left. The outcome was left to be decided by a Patriots offense that, save for a third quarter drive that ended in a field goal, had done little to replicate its first-half success. The Patriots� 4-0 start, its heralded winning streak, its lead in the division�..all on the line.

Guess what happened?

Patriots on Offense

Like I said, that first-half offensive performance was something. Crisp catch-and-run passing. Vigorous head-butt running. Four possessions, four scores. It would be hard to pick one or two players who stood out during that stretch, not the quarterback, the backs receivers or linemen � it was like eleven men operating as one remarkably efficient unit. It痴 hard to imagine the Pats offense looking any better.

The credit goes to Seattle痴 defense for making the second-half adjustments needed to slow the Patriots offense and allow the Seahawks back in the game. They hung a three-and-out on the Pats to start the second half, and then forced a Josh Miller punt after a Matt Light tripping penalty stalled a drive at the Seattle 38.

It was on the next two New England possessions that things got really interesting. A scrambling Tom Brady lunged, rather than slid, towards a first down and got both his hat and the ball popped by Michael Boulware just inside Seattle territory. The helmet went one way, and the ball the other. For the second week in a row, Brady was left rubbing his jaw.

The Seattle offense was forced to punt three plays later (after driving for a field goal on its first possession of the half), but as they say, the worm had turned.

Did it ever. Here came Boulware again on the next New England drive, diving in front of David Givens to intercept Brady痴 pass at midfield. I was wishing there was some kind of NFL legacy rule that would have had Boulware off somewhere else, playing for the Ravens. We need to get someone on that Competition Committee.

Anyway, Boulware intercepts, and bang-bang-bang, its 20-17 with eleven minutes left. The Pats had squandered a two touchdown lead. Gulp.

Fortuitously, the teams wasted the next eight minutes trading field goals. Yet when Seattle handed the ball back over to the Pats at their own 37 with 2:55 remaining, trailing by three, they did so with an emboldened defense and a full compliment of time outs. Gulp.

This brings us to Dame Bethel Johnson, who deigned to honor the Gillette Stadium throng with his presence today, after vacationing on the Isle of Inactive last week. It was nice of him to come, since two of his position mates were once again unable to attend due to entirely legitimate reasons.

Over the previous 47 minutes, Johnson had contributed little to the cause. In the first quarter, he had looked for the ball over the wrong shoulder on a third down Brady pass inside the Seattle 10. It痴 a pass you often see Brady complete to his more focused, better prepared receivers. This time, the pass fell incomplete and the Pats settled for a field goal.

Now, Johnson lined up wide as the Pats faced a 3rd and 7 from their own 40. A conversion here seemed critical to avoiding, at the least, overtime.

As he had occasionally done during the afternoon, Brady rolled to his left to buy time and then launched a 50 yarder toward a streaking Johnson, who had found his way inside the Seattle 20. Amazingly, brilliantly, the Locker Room Sultan of Swat fully extended himself through the air and snared the ball, smartly protecting it as he tumbled to the ground at the Seahawks 12.

A ridiculous flurry of red bean bags followed, but there was no denying that Johnson had caught and secured the pass, his only one of the day. Two Corey Dillon runs later and the Patriots had iced it with a touchdown. The 壮treak� lives on.

It was an oddly jarring ending to the day, a sudden heroic turn by the last guy you would have picked to do it. It made you wonder what kinds of things Bethel Johnson could do if he took his job as seriously as some of his less-naturally gifted teammates.

Between the lines, he could find no better role model than Dillon himself. Though he had missed most of the week with a foot injury, Dillon was in the starting lineup and running effectively from the start. He ended the day with 105 yards and two touchdowns. Say what you want about his history in Cincinnati, this guy is all football player. He can outrun them and run through them. And he does it in the toughest, meanest looking manner possible. It痴 like having the 1980痴 Mike Tyson as your running back.

The line is obviously creating sufficient space for Dillon痴 exploits, and today seemed to give Brady ample time whenever he tried to go upfield. David Patten (despite a run of troubling late drops), Daniel Graham (who also excelled as a blocker) and Kevin Faulk (admit it � this guy is a very valuable player) were the leading receivers, though it wasn稚 a numbers day. Eight different Patriots receivers caught a pass. Hey, even Dan Klecko grabbed one and ran for a first down.

Patriots on Defense

For starters, I guess I can cut back on the hand wringing over the Patriots pass defense.

Admittedly, they were aided by a Seattle receiving corps with hands like canoe paddles, but the Pats pass coverage limited the big plays and kept the Seahawks out of the end zone despite repeated attempts. Matt Hasselbeck had almost 350 yards, but produced only one touchdown, a run by Shaun Alexander.

What I値l remember about Hasselbeck today is him shuffling in the pocket as he ran through his progressions, finding none of them particularly appealing, and finally having to settle for the least spectacular, least intrusive option.

The Seahawks came out heavy on the pass right away, and ended up running the ball only infrequently (curious, as Alexander was relegated to a mere supporting role). Even though Seattle threw fifty times, the Patriots linebackers and secondary bent but never broke. Gaudy passing totals be damned, I知 giving the pass defense a gold star for this game.

The whole unit gets a sticker for they way they opened the game, convincingly putting their thumb down on the upstart Hawks like an annoyed big brother dumping his kid brother in the garage trash cans. For the weekend.

After Seattle had opened the game by driving into New England territory, Richard Seymour leaped and batted a Hasselbeck pass into the waiting arms of Willie McGinest, who lumbered to the Seattle 26. Five plays later, the Patriots had an early lead.

On the next drive, Ty Law collected the second of Hasselbeck痴 interceptions, a diving grab off the ground in front of Darrell Jackson. An Adam Vinatieri field goal followed, and Seattle had no more than gotten off the bus and was already down 10 in the stadium of the defending champions.

In the second half, as Seattle drew closer, the Patriots defense grudgingly gave up ground. They forced the Hawks into extended drives that in the end yielded only field goals. With the clock inside four minutes remaining and a precarious six point margin at stake, the Patriots flushed Hasselbeck into an intentional grounding that essentially ended Seattle痴 drive at the Pats 12. The defense dodged a bullet and in the process held on to a field goal lead. By the time they returned, they were again comfortably ahead by 10.

Eugene Wilson led all Patriots tacklers with 12, as he ranged far and wide with well-timed collisions that recalled his impressive rookie season. Rodney Harrison had 6 tackles and 6 assists, his second strong week in a row. Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi were steady as usual, two indispensable towers of strength that joined with the front line to ensure that Alexander痴 occasional runs would be unmemorable. Though Hasselbeck was elusive in the pocket, the Pats applied occasional heat as Vrabel, Ty Warren and Jarvis Green all had sacks.

Patriots on Special Teams

Kickoff coverage was a little better this week, thanks mostly to some very solid Adam Vinatieri kick offs. They池e still running in cement on returns. Punt coverage got a lift from a nice play by the returning J坦od Cherry, who pinned Seattle at their 17 after a 52 yard Miller kick. Vinatieri was again at his reliable best, hitting three field goals that helped to make the difference.

Patriots on the Sidelines

Here痴 a fun fact: the Patriots ran their record to 5-0 for the first time since 1974, the only other time a New England team has gone this far into the season undefeated.

If this was the Boston Globe, I壇 be reminding you now that the 1974 team finished 7-7 after a disastrous run of injuries and bad fortune. Like it meant something.

Instead, we値l say this: I think the talent level of the Patriots is often understated. Though I致e guzzled the Kool-Aid on the whole 奏eam� thing, there痴 still some pretty talented individuals in the Pats locker room.

Yet, no matter how talented those individuals are, when they collectively deliver such consistent performances week after week, to the extent that we池e now talking about a year since they lost, then I don稚 think it痴 unreasonable to think we might have one of the best coaching staffs anybody痴 ever had.

Patriots Next Week

The Game of the Century, at least to the bonehead tabloids and a few under-the-influence Internet Heroes. 5-0 Jets meet the 5-0 Pats at Gillette.

Game Day Rear View, Edition 2004, Volume 4

October 10, 2004
Dolphins vs. Patriots
At Gillette Stadium, Patriots WIN, 24-10
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

Listen to me. It痴 NOT nineteen straight.

Its sixteen straight. The official NFL record for consecutive wins as listed in the league’s 2004 Record and Fact Book does not include postseason play. Period. Logical or not, that痴 what it is. So can we please stop hearing about some made-up �includes postseason play� record that doesn稚 even exist? All right?

You値l have to pardon me. I think I have Streak Fatigue.

Anyway, it strikes me that things like all-time best winning streaks are best stored in a cool, dry place. Twelve (ok, fifteen) of these wins came last year, which means they don稚 do a thing to help the Patriots this year. And for the moment, this year happens to be the only thing that matters. Better we should discuss this streak years from now, when we might need a few fond memories to sustain us.

Or we may need those memories sooner than we think. Frankly, that痴 about all I took away from today痴 24-10 Patriots win over the Miami Dolphins.

It痴 not entirely surprising that the Patriots struggled offensively against the Dolphins, given recent history between the teams, and the litany of injuries that has suddenly plagued Tom Brady and company. One time, when they were in a three-wide set, I could have sworn two receivers were beating marching drums while a third carried a tattered American flag over his bandaged head.

More to the point, for the second week in a row the once-proud Patriots defense let a badly struggling offense move the ball effectively against what is supposed to be the team痴 strength. Were it not for the sheer ineptitude of the Dolphins offensive unit today (well, every day), the outcome of this game would most assuredly have been different.

I壇 like to fall back on my usual �well, the Patriots make the plays when they count, which is what makes them champions, blah, blah, blah� caterwauling here, but to tell you the truth, I知 not feeling it today. I壇 hate to ever take anything like that for granted.

The ultimate goal isn稚 a nebulous reputation. It isn稚 history-making winning streaks. The ultimate goal is playing well in the 2004 season. And perfect records be damned, the Patriots, particularly their defense, are not doing that at the moment.

By the way, the 1933-34 Chicago Bears won 17 consecutive regular season games. So there痴 your record. Now forget I ever mentioned it.

I don稚 want to talk about this anymore, unless you get an automatic berth in the playoffs because you set some kind of league record during the regular season. Otherwise, stifle yourself, Edith.

Patriots on Offense

I think I知 going to give the Pats offense a flyer on today痴 proceedings.

They began the day without receivers Deion Branch, Troy Brown and Bethel Johnson. They lost Corey Dillon for the fourth quarter. For a while there, they were down to Kevin Kasper (big day for Kev痴 webmaster, huh?) and Rabih Abdullah. You壇 have thought it was August.

Plus, the Dolphins have a good defense. Allegedly. I suppose it痴 hard to argue this based on the numbers � Tom Brady had 79 yards passing. All day.

But let me ask you � if they have such a good defense, how is it Brady found two wide-open receivers for first-half touchdowns, both inside the red zone? Isn稚 the red zone supposed to be the hardest place to throw the ball? Neither Daniel Graham (1st quarter) or David Givens (late 2nd) were near anyone who could have prevented them from catching the ball. Thankfully.

So even though he struggled with a Flutie-like 7 for 19, with more than a few poorly-thrown balls (he began the day with a horrendous interception that gave Miami the ball at the Pats 35), Brady managed to beat the Dolphins just enough to win. He led the team on three different touchdown drives after Miami turnovers. Still, it痴 troubling to think of him trying to carry a chronically banged-up offense for many more weeks.

Dillon had one of the biggest plays of the day early in the 3rd quarter, blowing up the always overrated Zack Thomas around left end and then tight roping his way down the sideline for 38 yards. Immediately after, Dillon limped off with what looked to be a lower leg injury. He would return later for only one play. But his 3rd quarter run had set up a short Abdullah plunge and a more comfortable 24-7 lead.

The offensive line seemed to struggle with the Miami痴 pass rush, though they only allowed one sack. They were asked to lead Dillon on several sweeps to the outside, with only modest results. I壇 love to hear why the Pats decided this was the best way to run on the Dolphins today, especially considering that a few between-the-tackles runs looked promising. Maybe somebody will ask Bill Belichick at tomorrow痴 press conference, if there痴 time after the Red Sox questions, that is.

Last thought: Kevin Faulk returned after missing three games and added a nice little screen to the Patriots touchdown drive late in the first half.

Patriots on Defense

You池e right; the Dolphins only scored 10 points. You池e right; the defense forced two Miami turnovers, setting up two touchdowns with great field position for the offense. You池e right; though the Dolphin offense controlled things for nearly all of the game痴 final quarter, they came away with no points.

I still say there痴 something fishy (oops) about the Patriots defense. They池e either running or thinking a step too slow. I知 not sure which one I壇 prefer. I guess neither.

Like the Bills before them, the Dolphins came into the game having recently set a 叢ersonal best� for offensive futility. And like Buffalo, Miami suddenly found some offensive life in their previously rubbery legs.

Beginning at about halfway through the 3rd quarter, trailing by 17, the Dolphins were able to drive 51 yards to the New England 11, 59 yards to the Patriots 21, 58 yards to the Patriots 16, and finally 39 more yards to the Patriots 7.

That is a one hell of a lot of yards to give up in a quarter and a half to a lousy offensive team, one that would self-dissolve on all but one of those drives. That痴 a lot of chances to get back in the game. I wonder what a stronger opponent, like say Seattle, or the Jets (ahem), will do if given those same opportunities.

Jay Fiedler, God bless him, had a typical Jay Fiedler game. A couple of decent throws, a nice scramble or two, then two (at minimum) nutcrushing mistakes followed closely by a game-ending injury. That guy is one of the most consistent players in the NFL.

Fielder did throw for more than 250 yards, nearly half of them to Marty Booker, who owned the 4th quarter. Let痴 face it, the Patriots secondary has just been sloppy, and I知 not sure playing without Tyrone Poole (knee � Asante Samuel started in his place) is a good enough excuse.

On the bright side, undrafted rookie corner Randall Gay had his first pick, and was impressive in batting away another pass. He ran stride for stride with the receiver on each play. 4th rounder Dexter Reid covered up Fielder痴 second turnover, a fumble near midfield caused by Rodney Harrison.

Harrison also had 11 tackles, leading the team. Ty Law had 9. If all these secondary guys had such good games, how did we give up all those yards?

As for the front seven, they managed the run well (only 67 yards despite some unfortunate yet brief moments at the hands of Brock Forsey) and delivered consistent pressures on Fiedler and then A.J. Feeley. One of the most notable was by comebacking LB Rosevelt Colvin, who accelerated through Feeley on a late pass attempt and knocked him from the game only minutes after Fiedler had been sidelined. Vince Wilfork had an impressive game, with 7 tackles including a sack.

Patriots on Special Teams

As far as our guys, eh, more of the same. Faulk brought some stability to the punt return outfit, which has missed steady Troy Brown. Yet like Kasper on kickoffs, he was unable to get much in the way of a return happening. In coverage, they still seemed slow to pursue to the ball, and they still struggled with tackling on the first wave. This remains as one of the team痴 weakest areas.

The real story here was the Miami special teams. First, the Dolphins lose Olindo Mare in the pre-game, and a reserve wide receiver and kick returner named Wes Welker ends up nailing a field goal and extra point, plus 150 yards in returns. You don稚 see that every day.

They should have had him punt. With three minutes left in the 2nd quarter, and with his team trailing by three, Matt Turk lined up to punt at Miami痴 43. Looks like a good chance to pin the Pats deep in their own territory.

The snap was slightly wide, but manageable, until Turk completely freaks out and starts running for the first down. Let痴 just say that he痴 no Brian Moorman. Patrick Pass pushed Turk out of bounds at the Miami 46, well short of the first down. He never had a prayer.

Six plays and 46 yards later, Brady hits Givens on a five yard slant and the Patriots extend their lead to 17-7.

Seeing Turk explain his plight to Dave Wannstedt was one of those hilariously inexplicable and unfortunate moments that make life worth living.

Patriots on the Sidelines

I know what I said earlier, but this is one place where we can afford one minute of reflection about what痴 been accomplished.

Let痴 just put it this way � in Boston, there痴 Red Auerbach, and now there痴 Bill Belichick. What has transpired in four years, and particularly the last 13 months, has been nothing short of astounding, and it won稚 ever be forgotten.

Patriots Next Week

Know this: if the Patriots are driving for the winning touchdown late in next week痴 home game with the Seahawks, they致e got the right coach on the opposing sidelines.

The Patriots better play 100% better on defense next week, or else.

Game Day Rear View, Edition 2004, Volume 3

October 3, 2004
At Ralph Wilson Stadium, PATRIOTS win, 31-17
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

Ringo was right. It don稚 come easy. And that may yet be a good thing.

In truth, the Patriots outlasted both their opponents and themselves today in Orchard Park, ultimately extending their unbeaten streak to18 with a 31-17 win over the Bills.

Don稚 let the 14 point spread fool you. The Patriots entered the 4th quarter tied with slumping Buffalo, 17-all. Their offense had started quickly, and then mostly faded against a solid Bills front seven. Their defense had been burned twice for passes of more than 40 yards by a suddenly-sprightly Drew Bledsoe, including one to Eric Moulds that gave the Bills a 2nd quarter lead.

And their special teams�..well, I thing we can conservatively describe their performance as 訴ncendiary�. And not the good, movie-review kind. The bad bullpen kind. Kick returns for touchdowns, punters sprinting 35 yards after fumbling the snap, and a curious kickoff strategy that seemed to scream 滴ere! Take it at your 40! We Give Up!�

But you know what? They池e still 3-0. They池e still undefeated in the conference and now in the division. They致e been tested in each game and have somehow withstood even embarrassing gaffes to prevail. And by virtue of their work last year, and through the first three weeks of this season, they池e still good enough to actively remain on a list of the NFL痴 best ever teams.

That痴 because when it counted yesterday, Tom Brady marched his team 61 yards in a little over a minute to even the score just before the half. When it counted, he took them another 80 yards to reclaim the lead with 11 minutes to play. And when it counted most, Tedy Bruschi made Bledsoe fumble, and Richard Seymour grabbed it on the run.

When it counted, the champions were able to play like champions.

Don稚 you get the sense that this Patriots team is already better equipped to defend the title than its 2002 predecessors? By week four of that season, it was pretty apparent that we weren稚 in New Orleans anymore.

I thankfully have nothing resembling that sinking feeling this time, despite how much I致e fretted about it this summer. Though the team has stumbled through some uneven early moments, I end this day with the further-growing conviction that the 2004 New England Patriots have the fundamental focus, toughness and resiliency they値l need to keep us all busy through January.

Patriots on Offense

The Bills have some nice defensive players, but for the most part, the Patriots were able to move the ball when they needed to.

They took the opening kickoff and ran off a 77 yard touchdown drive that quickly prevented any unnecessary 禅HIRTYONETONUTHIN� momentum from building in the aisles of The Ralph. No sense getting those people riled up.

As previously noted, they then got a must-touchdown at the end of the first half, when a play-faking Brady hit a wide open David Patten for a 38 yard score. And when the game neared the 45 minute mark tied at 17, the Patriots offense drove for seven critical points (a Daniel Graham grab in the back of the end zone) while holding the ball for nearly six minutes.

It will probably be mentioned that on that drive, the Bills actually forced the Patriots to settle for an Adam Vinatieri field goal, but jumped offside on the play to award the Patriots a first down, and a new life. It will probably be mentioned as an example of the kind of 鼠uck� these Patriots live by.

See, the way I see it, the Patriots could have wiped the go-ahead points off the board and promptly fumbled. They could have taken a sack or thrown a pick, or missed a try at a second FG. But they didn稚. They almost never do. Instead, they punched it in. Their opponent screwed up, and they made them pay.

Something like that has to be made of something more than just 鼠uck�.

It痴 more than just luck that has David Patten coming up big again for the Patriots, with over 100 yards receiving and a touchdown. The Pats started the game without Deion Branch, and lost Troy Brown and Bethel Johnson soon after (Bethel courtesy of Steve Neal Unchained, Part Two), but Patten and David Givens were more than enough to help Brady total nearly 300 passing yards.

The Pats had great success with the deep throw, particularly off Brady痴 deft play-action work (helped even more by the threat of Corey Dillon). Givens and Patten each had catches of over 40 yards, and Graham had one for 33.

The Patriots offensive line continued to sit on it and rotate, and they responded with a pretty clean game. They helped Dillon average more than 4 yards on 19 carries by quickly springing him up the middle (never better than on his 15 yard TD in the first) or walling off the Bills so he could sweep outside.

The line kept a pretty determined Buffalo pass rush (again, that front seven) off Tom Brady, who took a few hits but no sacks. As noted throughout, Brady had another strong game (particularly on third downs, as the Pats continued to convert at about 50%). While we池e on the subject, we might as well mention that Brady痴 the best quarterback in the NFL, and the centerpiece of the NFL痴 best team, and if things keep going this way (barring the unthinkable), he will for the first time be the frontrunner for league MVP.

Lastly, Dillon sounded one down note with his second fumble in two weeks, a second-quarter job that came at the Buffalo two. It cost the Patriots an almost-certain touchdown.

Patriots on Defense

I guess the first question that pops to mind is how in the hell can Drew Bledsoe look so bad for so long against so many teams and then suddenly spring to near lifelike form against the Patriots?

For a little while there, I was wondering if this might be Drew痴 day, and I imagined a special commemorative four-color pullout in tomorrow痴 Globe. Surprisingly, he was making quick drops and short throws to maintain possession and pile up first downs. And like last September, he was hitting big throws over the top. I got a little worried when Bledsoe beat the Pats secondary so badly on his touchdown to Moulds.

It wasn稚 just Bledsoe. Travis Henry had 98 yards on about 4 yards a carry. Eric Moulds finished with 10 catches for 126 yards. So, taken on the surface, the Bills anemic offense had unexpected success against the Patriots defense, which is not a comforting thought, no disrespect intended.

Yet, the Bills offense scored only 10 points. Henry ran steadily but rarely threatened bigger plays or scores. Bledsoe slowly reverted back to more familiar form as the Pats more frequently sent multiple blitzers to the line, and it was his fumble on the Bruschi sack and strip that led to Seymour痴 game clinching 68 yard return. It痴 not piling on to note that this kind of thing has happened to Drew an awful lot over his career.

A few defensive notes:

Both Eugene Wilson and Tyrone Poole gave up long passes. Is it my imagination, or has this happened a few times now? What痴 going on back there? I was also surprised by how few times Bledsoe appeared confused by the coverages he was seeing.

Poole rebounded nicely later, though, intercepting a poorly thrown Bledsoe pass and returning it to Bills territory.

Bruschi led the defense with two sacks, and the forced fumble as Bledsoe led the Bills towards a possible tying score in the fourth. Mike Vrabel continued to be a force from the edge.

It seemed like every time Travis Henry would start gaining a little steam, he would be soon met by Ted Johnson.

Patriots on Special Teams

Look, it痴 this simple. These guys don稚 make any plays. That痴 the first thing. They池e mediocre as a return outfit. Even with a couple of decent Bethel Johnson kickoff returns today, they have yet to do Thing One to excite anybody.

They池e horrifying as a coverage unit. You壇 think that after allowing a 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown (the NFL equivalent to the Secret Service losing a president) earlier in the game, they壇 take pains to be attentive enough to ensure the punter doesn稚 run 35 yards for a first down after muffing a snap. You壇 think that, wouldn稚 you?

They stink. They stunk in August. They stunk in September. And now it痴 October, and they still stink.

Patriots on the Sidelines

The Patriots seemed to have a well-balanced offensive game plan and some solid idea about when they could try for the big play. Defensively, they again seemed content to let the Bills move the ball underneath and force Buffalo to string together long scoring drives. So the yards pile up but the points do not..

So hat痴 off to you boys. That is, except you, Seely.

And am I the only one who thinks it痴 funny that the local media-ocrity has spent the last four years telling us that Bill Belichick is a lifeless, soulless automaton who will never say anything of the slightest significance for fear he壇 lose some competitive advantage, and now all of a sudden, he痴 a reckless Chatty Cathy who痴 needlessly putting his players in harm痴 way with his disrespectful boasting?

Off Topic

In this week痴 Sports Illustrated, Jake Delhomme talks of life since Super Bowl 38. To prove that he is still the same humble person he痴 always been, Jake reluctantly reveals (well, not reluctantly, exactly�. it was in the first paragraph) that he still mows his own lawn. And he enjoys it. Dang!

What is it with these Deep South quarterbacks and their lawns? Kiln, Mississippi痴 own Brett Favre has filled three hundred Peter King notebooks with the same story. These guys must cling to those friggin� Toros like they were the last sane thing in their lives. Why do I think a few desperate tears have been shed in those plastic bucket seats? 的知 OK, you know. I mowed and weedwhacked this morning. I did it by myself, even though I can buy and sell every one of you! So what if I shake a little? Stop staring at me!�

From the sounds of it, every player in the NFL besides Favre and Jake has an entire staff of groundskeepers on call 24 hours a day, probably wearing matching Dockers and polo shirts, and whenever the player wants his lawn cut, he rings a little bell.

What the hell were we talking about?

Patriots Next Week

Oh, yeah, the Patriots. Next week, its home to Foxboro, and a visit by the red-hot Miami Dolphins (red-hot as in self-immolated). The Patriots will try to win their 19th straight game.