October 1, 2016

Game Day Rear View, Edition 2004, Volume 18

Conference Championship
January 23, 2005
Steelers vs. Patriots
At Heinz Field, Patriots WIN, 41-27
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

The prolific New England Patriots today authored another compelling chapter in what has become one of the greatest stories in National Football League history.

With a convincing 41-27 win over the first seed Pittsburgh Steelers at a yet again sobered Heinz Field, the Pats captured their fourth conference championship in nine years, and wrote their own ticket to Jacksonville as the AFC representative to Super Bowl 39.

It will be New England痴 third Super Bowl in five seasons under masterful head coach Bill Belichick. They will face the Philadelphia Eagles on February 6th, with a chance to win their third world championship since February 2002.

It was a game of big plays, and it should surprise no one that the defending champs prevailed. Time and time again, the Belichick-era Pats have snuffed out challengers by making the biggest plays at the most crucial times, and today was no different. Pittsburgh had hoped to mirror their success of their regular season (including a Halloween whipping of New England) by beating the Patriots defense into submission, and blitzing the Patriots offense into omission.

They did none of it, at least not well enough to convince anyone they should be the AFC champs. Instead, they ended up as just another dejected sad sack slumped along New England痴 crowded Boulevard of Broken Teams.

Though there were a few dicey 3rd quarter moments, this game was won with a twenty-four point New England first half, set up by three right-out-of-the-chute Pittsburgh turnovers. Tom Brady landed the first blow with a textbook 60 yard bomb to Deion Branch, one play after the Pats defense had stuffed Jerome Bettis and forced him to fumble.

By the time Rodney Harrison stepped in front of a 2nd quarter Ben Roethlisberger out and returned it 87 yards for a score, the raucous Steelers fans were no longer waving their Terrible Towels. They were choking on them.

New England痴 mental toughness and experience took the crowd out of it early and robbed the Steelers of the home field advantage they had so convincingly earned on Halloween. It was a tough, hard hitting game, but the Patriots delivered all the defining blows.

This was yet another example of a total team victory. The ball hawking defense put the Steelers back on their heels early, and the offense converted to ensure New England痴 dominance would be reflected on the scoreboard. Then, when the defense was staggered by a second-half mini-comeback by Pittsburgh, the offense answered with time consuming drives that added points on the board and drained precious time from the clock. The Steelers never got closer than 11.

What a season. It痴 not every day your team goes 14-2 and reaches the Super Bowl. It痴 not every lifetime that your team accomplishes this as the defending champions.

I値l be the first one to tell you � when this season started, I never thought this would happen. The recent track record of defending champions � including the Pats� own painful 2002 – was too damning. As great as this band of players and coaches are, I never thought this would happen.

That it did tells me and everybody else everything we値l ever need to know about this era of New England Patriots football. They don稚 bow to history � they make it.

If they can play 60 more minutes of winning football, this will be the most remarkable season in the history of the team, and clearly one of the greatest in league history.

Patriots on Offense

Tom Brady to Deion Branch was the story.

Obviously, the Patriots believed that if they ran enough to keep the Steelers honest, they could badly gouge their secondary with deep passes. Well, it痴 one thing to know that, and something else entirely to carry it out. Which is what makes Tom Brady the best quarterback in football. He carries it out, especially in the playoffs, where he is now 8-0.

Brady痴 perfect throw to Branch ran New England痴 early lead to 10, and it was another long throw to Branch (a 45 yard dart down the middle) that set up the Patriots second touchdown, a nifty 9 yard screen to David Givens early in the 2nd quarter. Behind solid protection against the renowned Steelers pass rush, Brady had perfectly executed Charlie Weis� plan and put the Patriots in firm control of the game.

Later, when it seemed that firm grasp might be slipping, it was Brady that once again coolly put the champs back in control. A Steelers touchdown early in the 3rd quarter had trimmed the lead to 14, and the Pats offense badly needed a score before Pittsburgh could get any closer.

The Pats took over on their own 31, and Brady soon had converted a third down pass to Branch. But things quickly went sour when a Clark Haggans sack forced a 3rd and 17 at the Patriots 44.

To the rescue came Steelers end Aaron Smith, who grabbed Kevin Faulk as the Pats set up for a third down screen, and took a defensive holding penalty that gave the Pats a badly needed first down. On the next play, Brady found David Givens down the center of the Pittsburgh defense, and a diving 18 yard catch by the third year tough guy brought the Pats inside Steelers territory, to the 42.

For a moment, a poor officiating call gave Pittsburgh fans hope. Givens had lost the ball on a strip as he went to the ground, and officials immediately awarded possession to the Steelers as I had a Level Four Conniption Fit just inches from my television screen. But thanks to a New England challenge, replays quickly confirmed what even I could see from hundreds of miles away � Givens� knee hitting the ground well before he lost the ball.

To make matters worse for Pittsburgh, Haggans took a late shot at Daniel Graham as players scrummed for the loose ball, taking an unnecessary roughness call that moved the ball to the Steelers 25. On the next play, a relatively quiet Corey Dillon launched himself around right end and sprinted through and over the Pittsburgh defense for the key score.

Two completely boneheaded Pittsburgh penalties and Brady and the Patriots made sure each one hurt. They had picked up their struggling defensive teammates and suddenly, the 14 point lead was 21 again.

They would do it again once more before the afternoon was out. After a last 3rd quarter touchdown, the Steelers opened the 4th period with a Jeff Reed field goal that cut the lead back to 11. Led by Brady, who hit critical throws to Troy Brown and Givens on the drive, the Patriots held the ball for over five minutes before adding Adam Vinatieri field goal that gave them back their 14 point lead. Game over. The Steelers would get no closer.

Brady finished the day at 66% (14 for 21) with over 200 yards and two scores. Another big game and another big time performance by the amazing 27 year old. You wonder if there is any limit to what he will accomplish over his career.

When it comes to rising to the occasion, Deion Branch takes a backseat to no one. On his 60 yard touchdown, he ran a great post pattern against single coverage, and showed good strength to break a final shoetop tackle as he sped for the end zone. His 45 yarder in the 2nd quarter (which set up the score by Givens, who was also a standout) was a combination of good concentration and even better hands, as Brady found him in between a thicket of Steelers at the Pittsburgh 14.

Then, late in the 4th quarter, as the Pats attempted to run out the clock, Branch took an end around on a third down play and weaved his way for a 23 yard score, his second of the day. Much like in Super Bowl 38, Branch was brilliant throughout.

Aside from his 25 yard charge for a touchdown, Corey Dillon was largely a secondary player in this match up with the physical Steelers. Most of his 24 carries were short gains into the Pittsburgh line. Still his presence alone helped to create some of the downfield openings that Brady exploited, and besides, judging from the look on Dillon痴 face as time expired, it didn稚 look like he minded the grunt work at all.

Though the offensive line was unable to spring Dillon for more than one long run, they quietly but effectively handled the Steelers front seven and gave Brady ample time to find his downfield targets. The Steelers had just two sacks on the day.

Patriots on Defense

It was a tale of two halves. Thankfully, the Patriots defense won the right one.

With a hungry Pittsburgh whipped into a frenzy at the prospect of their 15-1 Steelers hosting the defending champs, the opening minutes would be critical to determining whether tonight痴 game would be any different than the Pats last visit to Heinz Field.

Thanks to the Patriots defense, the champs passed that test with flying colors, and not the yellow terrycloth kind. Soon after their delirious fans saw the Steelers win the opening toss, the Pats forced rookie Roethlisberger into the game痴 first error. Asante Samuel tipped, and Eugene Wilson intercepted, the rookie痴 first pass attempt, which set up a Vinatieri field goal and gave the road warrior Pats the early lead.

Their next stop was even more profound. Roethlisberger mixed his running game with a key pass to Plaxico Burress to advance the ball inside Patriots territory. When the Pats D stiffened, the Steelers were faced with a 4th and 1 at the New England 39. Jerome Bettis was in the backfield as the brawling Steelers lined up in their short yardage set.

It should be noted that Halloween was the first time anybody could remember Jerome Bettis doing ANYTHING against the Patriots. The next play provided incontrovertible evidence that this was simply an aberration.

Bettis took the handoff and bulled to the left side of the Pats line, where he was stuffed silly. Despite having less than a yard to travel, the Bus never got close to the marker. For good measure, he allowed himself to be stripped by Rosevelt Colvin, and Mike Vrabel recovered. Next play, Brady to Branch, and its 10-0 Patriots.

Later in the quarter, the Pats held Pittsburgh to a 43 yard Jeff Reed field goal when a poor punt by Josh Miller stuck them with a short field.

After the Pats offense had extended the lead to 14 points with the Givens touchdown, the defense drove a big nail in the Steelers coffin with a signature play that has probably already been burned to a commemorative DVD.

Roethlisberger had driven the Steelers back inside Patriots territory with a 28 yard pass to Hines Ward, and a third down sneak that gave Pittsburgh a first down at the NE 23. On second down, Roethlisberger went to his right looking for tight end Jerame Tuman, whose out pattern was being covered by Rodney Harrison.

Harrison baited the throw, and pounced immediately when the rookie let it go. He grabbed on the fly at the NE 13 and started up the far sideline with only Roethlisberger between him and the end zone.

Well, I guess Mike Vrabel was in there too, because it was him that sent the rookie quarterback flying ass over teakettle, allowing Harrison to practically walk the final ten yards to the end zone. It was an 87 yard touchdown return and at least a 10 (and perhaps as much as 14) point swing.

By the way, I know the Steelers came back and made it (somewhat) of a game in the second half, but how was it Harrison was able to power walk the final 25-30 yards of that return? He could have been timed with a sundial. Did you see one Steeler besides Roethlisberger giving chase? Where were those wide receivers, or running backs? Nobody? Hmmmm. Sorry, but I don稚 think you壇 see such an occurence involving the Patriots.

Anyway, the half ended with the Pats up by a 24-3 score, which must have been hard to swallow for Dumbass Dan Marino and Horseface Shannon Sharpe, Pitt-pickers both.

To Roethlisberger痴 credit, he rallied his team in the second half. Suddenly, the Steelers were rolling on the ground and the rookie was finding uncovered receivers for big gains. He hit a big 34 yard completion to Randle El, which set up a short Bettis TD, and then connected on a 30 yard TD to Hines Ward on a 4th down play that again made it just a two touchdown game.

The teams traded field goals as the 4th quarter opened, and the Steelers took over with almost eight minutes left, needing two scores (partially because of a lilly-livered coaching call by Bill Cowher, he of the sterling home playoff record, who settled for a field goal through he was at the Pats 2). They had scored on each of their three second-half possessions, and the Pats defense was reeling. It was time for a little first-half magic, if there was any left.

There was. On the second play of the drive, Eugene Wilson grabbed his second interception on a Roethlisberger overthrow, a diving catch that was reviewed and upheld. Thanks to yet another timely turnover, the Pats could start eying that box of t-shirts and hats that had been inconspicuously placed on their sidelines.

The Steelers added a last minute pity touchdown, but who cares?

As usual, Harrison and Tedy Bruschi led the Patriots defense. Along with his pick and return, Harrison totaled 12 tackles. Bruschi had 9, many of which were solid whacks on the preening and underproducing Bettis. Good stuff from the SI cover boy.

The Pats d-line, again without Richard Seymour, was a revelation of sorts. They didn稚 exactly blank the Pittsburgh running backs, but they assuredly blanketed them. Anchoring the productive front were Ty Warren (8 tackles) and Jarvis Green (5), who were ably backed up by the reliable Ted Johnson (8).

Wilson had the two picks and I swear, Asante Samuel probably could have had four of his own, if he had been permitted to wear stickum-coated suction cups on his gloves. Though he came away with none, he sure had his hands on a hell of a lot of Roethlisberger痴 passes. A tremendous effort by both second year d-backs.

Patriots on Special Teams

Vinatieri痴 field goal in the opening minutes was a 48 yard bomb right down the center. So much for the impenetrable (for kickers) Heinz Field. As we well know by now, Vinatieri isn稚 just any kicker. He was perfect on both of his attempts.

Josh Miller had a horrible first punt but rebounded nicely to average 40 yards on four kicks.

Coverage and returns were mixed (much stronger in the first half than second), but there were no big plays either way.

Patriots on the Sidelines

Bill Belichick has now tied the legendary Vince Lombardi for best-ever playoff record for a NFL head coach, increasing the Ron Borges Mockability Factor ten-fold.

And by the way, the next time that jackass spews his tired shtick about a certain egomaniacal head coach, show him the transcript of Belichick痴 post game remarks today. Regardless of the significance of the win, the coach was accepting no plaudits, instead deflecting any and all credit towards his able roster of tough, resilient players. I had been led to believe by Borges (as well as fellow horse痴 ass Shannon Sharpe) that this would never, ever be the case. Wrong again, Ron. You池e on quite a streak.

Patriots Next Week

Let痴 all do another Super Bowl, shall we? For the second time in the short life of the Rear View, we can say 壮ee you at the big game�.

Un-freaking-believeable.

Game Day Rear View, Edition 2004, Volume 17

Divisional Playoff
January 16, 2005
Colts vs. Patriots
At Gillette Stadium, Patriots WIN, 20-3
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

First, a few words to all the mediots, national and otherwise, who spent this week hysterically shrieking about the superiority – nay, the sheer inevitability – of Peyton Manning and the not-to-be-denied Colts.

In the inimitable words of Coach Bill Belichick, go blank yourself.

I mean, really. How many times must we add 2 and 2 before you値l finally acknowledge the correct answer is always 4?

Well, how about you mooks try to wrap your thick heads around this: 276 total yards for your all-world Colts offense. 238 yards passing and no touchdowns for your precious, unstoppable Hall of Fame quarterback. Three lousy, stinking points. THREE.

And Ty Law was nowhere in sight. Neither was Tyrone Poole, or Richard Seymour. How could this be? It must be a miracle!

Nope. Business as usual here in the snowy (heh, heh) home of the two-time Super Bowl champions.

Unless you池e as lame brained as Gerry Callahan and Ron Borges, you knew all along that the well-balanced, strong of heart New England Patriots would once again assert their own brand of superiority � the actual kind – and humiliate the Colts in an AFC divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium by a not-as-close-as-it-sounds score of 20-3.

The Patriots killed the Colts. Indianapolis, for all their hype, for all their bootlicking media man servants, had one chance to make a game of it, way back in the second quarter, and had to settle for a field goal. Otherwise, the Patriots controlled the affair start to finish. The outcome, and the hilarious futility of yet another Colts hothouse flower season, was never in doubt.

Though the offense controlled the ball a full quarter longer than the Indianapolis, and hammered out three crucial drives that sealed the game, this one was all about the Patriots defense.

They deployed pass defenders across the expanse of Gillette Stadium, frustrating Manning from the opening gun. Never were the Colts able to hit the kind of pass plays that have, as it turns out, needlessly filled so many ESPN highlight packages. The rest of the football world knows Peyton Manning as a cerebral giant, a sort of football Deep Blue; but in New England, we know him as the lost ninny wandering along Route 1, shaking his head, forever trying to find his lost keys.

But it was far more than a chess match of crafty, well-executed coverages. It was about punching the other guy in the mouth, too, and (surprise!) the Patriots defense carried off this part of the game plan to perfection, once again. For example, they were having none of Edgerrin James and the Colts running game. As a result, yet another of Peyton痴 層eapons� was as neutered as Bob Barker痴 housecat.

And check those gaudy yards-after-catch numbers on the mighty Colts receivers � when you get tackled in New England, you nancies, you stay tackled.

All week long, prognosticators far and wide (including a particularly addled one who took the time to leave a thoughtful message on my answering machine) buffed Classy Tony Dungy and the Colts to a fine sheen. Cock-sure experts scoffed at the thought that anyone could stop Indianapolis, much less the depleted Patriots. Sure, the Patriots had owned the Colts at every turn over the last five seasons, but that was all meaningless this time, in Cryin� Bill Polian痴 new NFL. Indianapolis, finally freed from the Patriots illegal defensive tactics, would surely roll.

How could they be so stupid? This Patriots team is more than names and numbers on a depth chart, more than statistics on a score sheet, more than All-Pro votes and individual awards. It痴 not the depth of their roster that counts, though no one is deeper than New England. It痴 the depth of their hearts, of their minds, of their souls. Here, their depth is truly unmatched. Time and time and time again.

Simply put, the New England Patriots are in the business of acquiring tough, talented, hard-working, humble and hungry lions, and then turning them over to one of the greatest coaching staffs ever assembled. What comes out in the end is not easily deterred by the latest Next Big Thing.

But why is this always such a surprise to these clucking media boneheads? For crying out loud, entire books have been written on the subject of what makes New England the best team in the league. Maybe you fools ought to drop your axes and your phony premeditated arguments for five minutes and pick up a copy. You might learn something, like to never underestimate the world champion Patriots.

In the meantime, though, by all means, go blank yourself.

Patriots on Offense

Three extended drives, one in each of the final three quarters, were all it took to ice this one in a snowy scene eerily reminiscent of last January痴 AFC Championship Game. Once again the Colts shallow, underachieving wunderkinds were given a first-hand lesson in how a real offense, one with substance and spirit, scores points when it really counts.

Between you and me, I doubt they were paying attention. I think instead of hiking up their thongs and getting down to work, they値l pursue a rule change of some kind. That痴 how they do things down there.

The Pats offense struggled through a scoreless first quarter, yet to their credit, they played the possession and field position game to perfection. Manning痴 best starting position through his first three possessions was his own 27.

Then, with about five minutes left in the first quarter, the Patriots began the game痴 first scoring drive. From their own 16, they soon gained midfield behind the clench fisted running of Corey Dillon and the surprising sprints of the returning Kevin Faulk, he of the season-ending knee injury. Then, after the Colts forced a third and five at their own 46, it was Tom Brady once again doing what he does best. His clutch third down conversions to David Patten and David Givens drove the ball inside the Indianapolis 10 and set up a short touchdown plunge by Dillon.

Maddeningly, Matt Light痴 false start nullified the TD, and the Pats had to settle for a 24 yard Adam Vinatieri field goal. Still, the point had been clearly made. The Pats had body-punched their way to 78 yards and a score in just over nine minutes.

Soon after, they added another field goal with a relatively quick and short (48 yards in 1:26) drive, extending their lead to six points. The Colts knocked that back to three just before the half with what turned out to be their most successful possession of the game.

For all of New England痴 first half dominance, they had but a tiny lead that could have been eclipsed by one quick Indianapolis strike (as ridiculous as that notion seems, in retrospect). So with nearly ten minutes still remaining in the third quarter, the Patriots needed a touchdown.

Naturally, they got it, and again it was Dillon and Faulk who carried the load. From their own 13, they rang up five first downs and ground more than eight precious minutes off the clock. Though the two backs keyed the drive, Brady hit big passes to Christian Fauria (a 17 yarder on 2nd and 11) and Patrick Pass (a 14 yarder on 3rd and 3) before finding Givens again, this time for a five yard touchdown on 3rd and goal.

That left the Pats with a 10 point lead with just over 16 minutes remaining. The Colts, as they say, were DONE. But leaving nothing to chance, the Pats again regained the ball after a quick fourth quarter stop by the defense, and added the cherry to this Sunday with a 94 yard touchdown drive that drained even more sand (7:24) from the Colts� hourglass. This time, it was Brady himself that capped the drive, plunging for a one yard score behind the stalwart left side of the Patriots line.

Two big plays highlighted this final nail in the Colts coffin. The biggest was an 11 yard reception from Faulk on 3rd and 10 from the Patriots 6 yard line. With the Colts offense hoping for a stop that would likely leave them 10 points down and the ball at midfield, Brady found a tightly covered Faulk just over the yellow marker, and the invaluable veteran held on after momentarily bobbling the ball and taking a sharp hit from Indy痴 Bob Sanders. The Colts offense dejectedly returned to their heated benches.

Then, after a mix of run and pass drove the Pats inside Indy痴 30, it was Dillon with his second long run of the day (a 44 yard second quarter sprint had set up Vinatieri痴 second field goal). On a 3rd and 8, Dillon took a handoff and drove to his left, through the center of the Colts staggering defense, and went 27 will-crushing yards before being pushed out at the Indy 1. Brady痴 score on the following play felt like little more than a formality.

Dillon is nothing less than the team痴 offensive MVP. In his first ever playoff game, he ran for 144 yards and a 6.2 average. He is the football equivalent of the heart punch. Cincinnati has to be a foggy memory by now.

Brady痴 final numbers won稚 turn any heads (144 yards), but let痴 just be reasonable from now on and admit that when the discussion turns to NFL quarterbacks, we start with Tom Brady and work our way down. His clear, cool thinking, combined with his propensity for being at his best when it is most needed, puts him at a level that Peyton Manning can only dream about.

Faulk, as he has been through much of his career, was spectacular when it counted the most. Along with his crucial third down reception, he added 56 rushing yards on just 11 carries. Those who vividly recalled his agonized screams on the sidelines of Pro Player Stadium just a month ago had to be shaking their heads in amazement. They should have been.

The offensive line yielded three sacks, none of which amounted to a damn thing. Rather, we should celebrate their consistent pocket around Brady and their complete physical dominance of Indy痴 puny, no account defense. The Pats finished with over 200 yards on the ground.

Patriots on Defense

The snow that swirled about Gillette as CBS came on the air was certainly a welcome sight for Patriots fans, who know what shrinking violets the Colts can be when they池e not safely tucked in their greenhouse.

Yet it was not nearly as welcome as the sight of the Patriots defense once again stuffing the ball, and the Colts nonsensical Super Bowl hopes, straight down the throats of the dandified Indianapolis offense.

It began at the start. The Colts won the opening toss and confidently strode on the field, their successes against that gritty, unbending Denver Broncos defense no doubt still fresh in their minds.

They didn稚 hold the ball for two minutes before punting it away. Randall Gay痴 sure tackle on a 3rd down catch by Marcus 践and Us the Rings� Pollard forced an immediate Colts punt.

It didn稚 get any better for the Colts on their next possession. Amusingly, it was a drop by the fearsome Dallas Clark � he of the whopping 25 regular season catches � that led to Indy痴 second 3 and out. I知 sure that those who forecasted Clark痴 supremacy at least expected him to be able to catch the ball.

The Pats� dominance continued unabated throughout most of the first half, thanks to a suffocating pass defense and a well-honed nose for the football. With New England leading by six in the 2nd quarter, the Colts moved the ball into Patriots territory, yet were once again stunted when Tedy Bruschi sniffed out a screen to Dominic Rhodes. The brainy and brawny Bruschi not only stopped the play for a loss, but he tore the ball from Rhodes� hands as he threw him to the ground. It was the kind of play that only true champions make.

Still, the Patriots were unable to extend their lead, and the Colts regained possession with less than two minutes to play in the half. From his own 28, Manning went to a no huddle offense that moved the ball quickly inside the Patriots 15. Yet here again, New England痴 clear superiority over the Colts was evident. The offense that no one can stop was unable to score a touchdown despite being 1st and 10 from New England痴 12. The Colts were forced to settle for a field goal by Mike Vanderjerk, who now has a full off-season to consider his own ripeness.

However, the Colts had to enter the second half with some optimism, being down by only three after playing their worst offensive half of the season. That痴 what makes the Patriots performance over the game痴 final 30 minutes all the more remarkable.

With their first drive of the 3rd quarter, the almighty Colts offense, freshly buoyed by the success of their two-minute drill, moved the ball exactly 20 yards. With the Pats offense now working in perfect concert with their defensive mates, the Colts didn稚 touch the ball again until there were only 89 seconds left in the period. This time, trailing by 10 and with time running out on their season, they moved it 15 yards.

After watching the Patriots offense rip off the kind of drive that is supposed to be only their dominion, the Colts offense started their third possession of the half at their own 20, down by two touchdowns. They moved it exactly ZERO yards before Reggie Wayne was relieved of the ball by Rodney Harrison, and Bruschi fell on his second fumble recovery of the day. The next (and last) time the Colts touched the ball, it was a moot point, as irrelevant as can be. Naturally, they drove the ball straight up the field. Frauds. It served them right that Harrison spoiled the whole thing with his grab of an entirely predictable Manning interception.

It was again a total team effort by the Patriots. If we had to draw attention to anyone, we would start with the linebackers.

Willie McGinest was a man possessed, charging all over the field in stopping the run and pass. At this point, it would be hard to argue that the Indianapolis Colts have no shot at beating the Patriots as long as McGinest is drawing a NFL breath.

Bruschi, the heart and soul of the entire franchise, had eight tackles to go with his forced fumble and two recoveries. Though the Patriots did little to turn up the pass rush on Manning, choosing instead to blanket the field in coverage, Mike Vrabel continually pushed the Colts pocket and made Manning move side to side, which he clearly hates. Vrabel even had one of his patented reach around strips of the quarterback, though the Colts quickly fell on Manning痴 early fumble.

But in the end, if any member(s) of the Patriots deserve special accolades for the latest in an increasingly long list of inspirational victories, it would be the blatantly disrespected New England secondary, led by Rodney Harrison (a forced fumble, and interception, and 11 tackles).

Let me ask you � did Marvin Harrison even play? Did Reggie Wayne? I ask because I was told that those two would be running wild in Foxboro, what with Ty Law and Tyrone Poole hurt. I was assured of this by some of the region痴 finest football analysts. The Patriots would never be able to stop those immortals with mere mid-round draft choices and street free agents.

If you persist on categorizing players like Asante Samuel (who had one of the day痴 big hits, a knockdown blow) and Randall Gay based on where they were drafted, or how recognizable their names are, then you do so at your own peril. Right now, you look pretty freaking stupid, don稚 you?

Oh, and by the way, Brandon Stokley really wore out Troy Brown, didn稚 he? Shaddup with your Brandon Stokley already.

Patriots on Special Teams

Vinatieri � as is his custom � nailed his two field goal tries, despite the awkward conditions. Most importantly, the Patriots� special teams were masters of the field position game, never allowing a return that shortened the field for the Colts offense. Troy Brown, who has done so many remarkable things this season, was also stellar as a punt returner.

Patriots on the Sidelines

I shudder to think what a lopsided game this would have been had the coaching match-up not been so even.

Bill Belichick is one game from tying Vince Lombardi痴 all-time best playoff record by a NFL head coach. Tony Dungy, who somehow led Tampa Bay to a world championship after being fired the previous season, is light years away from ever being discussed in the same breath as Lombardi.

Patriots Next Week

It is, as it should be. The Patriots get another crack at the Steelers, the one team in the league that had a better regular season than New England, by virtue of their Halloween night drubbing of the defending champs. This time, the Patriots return to Pittsburgh with a score to settle and a third Super Bowl appearance in four years on the line. There痴 something very perfect about that.

Game Day Rear View, Edition 2004, Volume 16

January 2, 2005
49ers vs. Patriots
At Gillette Stadium, Patriots WIN, 21-7
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

The Patriots completed back to back 14-2 seasons today with an oddly uncomfortable 21-7 win over the San Francisco 49ers at Gillette.

It was a peculiar game, almost painful to watch. Much of the chatter leading up to the Niners visit focused on the ‘insignificance’ of the game (the result could not affect the standings, or more to the point, the Patriots’ playoff seeding) and, consequently, the notion that the Patriots’ starters would airlifted safely away from the action well before the opening kickoff, so as to ensure their fitness for a Pats run to the Super Bowl.

Others discussed the need for the Patriots to keep their play calling close to the vest because scouts for their possible divisional round playoff opponents would be watching from the stands. In any event, nobody spent too much time talking about ‘the upside’ of the last game of the regular season.

As a result, there was a palpable anxiety to the proceedings. Even the Patriots themselves reflected it – they appeared too anxious to dispose quickly of the Niners, especially offensively, which in turn enabled San Francisco to hang around like grim death throughout most of the game. A series of early turnovers and penalties combined to stunt an easy victory and keep many starters playing well into the fourth quarter.

Still, in the end, the Patriots left the field with a reasonably solid win and no major injuries. They overcame the adversity caused by their early sloppiness to gain control of the game in the second half and ensure their fourteenth win. A few reserves shined when given the chance to play a lead role, as New England backups so frequently do.

It wasn’t pretty, but it didn’t have to be. Mainly, it just had to be over. And now it is.

Patriots on Offense

The few observers that declared definitively before the game that Tom Brady would be sent packing after the first quarter may choose to carve up some Bill Belichick this week. They shouldn’t judge the Pats coach too harshly; I’m sure they plan was to get Brady out of there as soon as possible, just as soon as he threw four first-half touchdown passes.

Surprisingly, the Pats favored the pass over the run by a 2-1 margin in the first half, no doubt in an effort to put the game away early. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect, keeping Brady in the game until the fourth quarter.

First, it was a Corey Dillon fumble of a Brady screen pass that stopped the first Pats drive, after they had advanced from their own 7 to the Niners 32. Dillon was stripped from behind by San Francisco DE John Engleberger after gaining 18 yards on a well executed play.

Then, after the Pats defense dispatched the Niners without a first down, it was Brady and Dillon again, from their own 34. This time, Brady awkwardly tried to dump the ball to Dillon, and the wild pass banged off Dillon’s right hand at midfield before landing in the arms of Niners’ corner Dwaine Carpenter, who returned it to the Pats 22.

Five plays later the Niners had broken the Pats streak of scoring first at 23, and New England fans were again left to ponder their team’s late season futility against NFL also rans.

Brady came back in the second quarter, though, and led the Pats on a 71 yard, no-huddle drive that ended when a wide open Mike Vrabel caught a short flip from Brady to tie the game. Arrogant Belichick; not only are they playing the starters, they’ve got them going two ways!

Brady set up the touchdown with a 22 yard completion to David Givens (injured players still in the game!) that brought the ball to the SF 2. Dillon also redeemed himself on this drive with a 19 yard stab through the heart of the Niners defense.

The fun wasn’t over yet, though. After another San Francisco punt, Brady again went back to the no-huddle and drove the team from the Pats 24 to inside the Niners 20. Brady hit Jed Weaver and David Patten for big gains in this drive, but when he dropped to pass on a 2nd and long, Engleberger again flashed through to strip the ball away and keep a New England score off the board. Thanks to his efforts, and the Pats sloppiness, the first half ended tied at 7-7.

With about 11 minutes to play in the third quarter and the game still tied, the Patriots took over the ball at midfield after the Pats special teams and defense had conspired to trap San Francisco near its own goal line. They again returned to the no huddle, and a 29 yard Dillon sprint (again through the middle of the Niners defense) brought the ball inside the SF 20. After a short completion brought the ball inside the 10, Brady found Deion Branch on a pick and roll screen play and the third year big-play receiver tight roped along the sideline for the score, and the lead.

Two possessions later, Brady drove the Pats from their own 34 to the Niners 14 (more no huddle stuff, with the big play another down the middle strike to Weaver for 25) before finally giving way to Rohan Davey, who finished off the scoring drive with two gives to Dillon. Brady left after going 22-30 with two TD passes, his 27th and 28th of the season.

Dillon, who left shortly after Brady, finished with 116 yards on only 16 carries, so if the Pats were looking to rest their star runner, they succeeded. And much to the delight of the local media, he reached his $375,000 incentive bonus for reaching 1,600 yards for the season. I’m not sure if Corey had previously pledged to give the bonus to them if he earned it, but they sure seemed interested in that. Well, at least the media got what it wanted.

Dillon’s TD to open the fourth quarter was his 12th of the season, tying a Patriots team record. He was spelled by the trio of Patrick Pass, Rabih Abdullah and Cedric Cobbs for the rest of the day.

By the way, that fumbled screen pass in the first quarter? The Patriots should have challenged that ruling. The replay showed (at least to me) that Dillon was down before he fumbled the ball. Were the Pats resting the red bean bag for the playoffs?

Jed Weaver seemed to play the role of Daniel Graham for the day, and he did it well. He finished with four catches for 62 yards, and made key plays on two scoring drives.

Patriots on Defense

The defense wasn’t excepted from the weirdness that was the season’s last – and most meaningless – game.

They allowed a 100 yard rusher (Kevan Barlow) for just the third time this season, yet, if you ask me, the Patriots stopped the run. The Niners averaged less than four yards a carry in 35 tries. 53 of Barlow’s yards were on two runs that came after the Pats had the game well in hand.

They allowed a number of drive extending third down conversions through the air, yet if you look at the scoreboard, they held their opponent to just seven points. And that was only when San Francisco began a drive at the Patriots 22 after a first quarter turnover by the struggling offense.

Most importantly, the Patriots defense left the field with a win and precious few bumps and bruises for the days ahead.

Tully Banta Cain relieved Willie McGinest early in the contest and had a strong game with six tackles and an alert fumble recovery when, in the third quarter, the Niners Maurice Hicks collided with an offensive lineman and coughed up the ball.

Hicks later fumbled again on a fourth down play late in the game, and it was recovered by Earthwind Moreland. They were the only two Patriots takeways of the afternoon.

Jarvis Green, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork all helped to clog the line against the run. McGinest had the Patriots’ only sack.

Not one to take too many vacations, Tedy Bruschi played deep into the fourth quarter and led all Patriots with 15 tackles.

Patriots on Special Teams

The whole day got off on the wrong note when Moreland’s block in the back wiped out Bethel Johnson’s electric 86 punt return for a touchdown on the Patriots’ first touch of the game.

It took a touchdown off the board, but even the most disgusted Patriots fan had to be buoyed by Johnson’s clean sprint to the goal line. We look forward to a healthy Johnson returning kicks in two weeks.

The other special teams highlight was the kicking of Josh Miller and the downfield coverage of the returning J’Rod Cherry, who came off the waiver wire to expertly down two Miller punts at the SF goal line.

Patriots on the Sidelines

The Pats were pass happy at the start, and it’s clear the plan was to do away with San Francisco early. Ah, the best laid plans. Still, if the players had executed at all, the team might have shattered the franchise record for most points scored in a season. As it was, they finished four points short.

Defensively, the Pats tried to force the game into the hands of Niners backup Ken Dorsey, and even though he responded with a relatively clean game, he was unable to mount any kind of challenge on the score board.

And now, a few funs facts while I get over the disappointment that Belichick didn’t hand Romeo the headset:

1) At 14-2, the Patriots have tied the best record in history for a defending Super Bowl Champion;
2) The Patriots have now earned their fourth first-round bye since the current playoff system was instituted in 1990. In their three previous bye seasons, the Pats advanced to the Super Bowl;
3) The Pats’ four byes rank second in NFL history, behind Pittsburgh’s six;
4) New England has now won 19 straight at home, the NFL’s longest current home winning streak. The Pats have not lost at home since a 30-17 defeat to the New York Jets on Dec. 22, 2002 (second week in a row I’ve mentioned that game).

Patriots Next Week

I’m taking next week off to protect myself for the playoffs.

Obviously, all eyes with be on CBS (no pun intended) on Sunday afternoon at 1:00 PM, as the Denver Broncos travel to Indianapolis for a wild card game. With an easy mark as their first-round opponent, it’s getting more likely by the minute that the Colts will advance to the divisional round to face the Patriots in Foxboro.

See you in two weeks.