by Scott Benson
The 2007 New England Patriots opened for business on Sunday and instantly began crushing competitors like a gridiron Super Wal-Mart.
The first Mom and Pop operation to go belly up was the New York Jets, who fell to the Patriots 38-14 in a game that was, and I say this without a trace of sarcasm, not as close as the score indicated.
The Pats slaughtered the Jets from pillar to post, owning the line of scrimmage and every square inch surrounding it, emphatically denying any claim New York may have laid – prematurely, it seems – to the AFC Eastern Division.
One can only guess which ancient prizefight film Eric Mangini showed his team to prepare for this game. Emile Griffith and Benny “Kid” Paret?
Score over the last eight quarters played between the two teams? New England 75, New York 30.
Randy Moss was sensational in his Patriots debut, threatening the team’s single game receiving record and threatening the rest of the American Conference with his explosive presence in New England’s lineup.
Ellis Hobbs, quite combustable himself, broke an NFL record with a 108 yard kickoff return for touchdown to open the second half. That, and Moss’s 51 yard score from Tom Brady just moments later, also broke the Jets.
New York quarterback Chad Pennington was forced from the game with an ankle injury in the third quarter, to cheers from the Jets faithful.
It all started, though, with the Patriots utter dominance of New York’s offensive and defensive lines. When Brady took the field, he did so with complete immunity from the Jets pass rush. When Laurence Maroney and Sammy Morris lugged the ball, they did so through seams and alleys made clear by the physical, yet athletic New England front. There have been few days where all elements of the Patriots offense have meshed better.
This was never more true than on New England’s first possession. After being pinned inside their ten by a Jets punt, the Patriots offense worked free of their own goal line by handing the ball to Maroney, who carried three times for 21 yards. When the Jets moved up to defend, Brady calmly went over them, hitting Wes Welker and then Moss (alone, in full stride in the center of the field) for easy first downs. It was Welker, set in a formation that left him one-on-one with a single defender, that finished the 91 yard drive with a nifty catch, cut and run for the Patriots’ first score of the season.
On the other side of the ball, the New England defensive line immediately took away Thomas Jones and the Jets running game behind the push of Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren, while Jarvis Green and Mike Vrabel collapsed the pocket around Pennington.
It was only a subsequent series of relativetly minor New England miscues that gave the Jets any hope, and Pennington eventually took advantage, driving the Jets 66 yards with short passes to Laverneus Coles and Jericho Cotchery to tie the game at 7.
But Brady took the game right back for the Pats, leading the offense on another balanced drive that again featured thrilling contributions from Moss, and again ended in the New York end zone. The two time Super Bowl MVP first went right (on a perfectly thrown loft that netted 33) and then left (an overhand fastball for 22) on consecutive plays to Moss, which set up a big-league TD catch by Ben Watson on 3rd and Goal from the Jets 5, as the tight end worked himself free along the back line while Brady whistled one through the Jets for the score, and the 14-7 lead. New York went to the locker room with none of the momentum it had so temporarily held.
Nor would they ever come close to recapturing it, even after the break. Thanks for this goes first to Hobbs, who opened the second half by returning a kickoff from eight yards deep in his own end zone. Which come to think of it, is probably not the best idea. But Ellis Hobbs is no shrinking violet, and so he took it left up the sidelines, where Watson stepped up again with the crucial block that set Hobbs free on his record-setting run. What did I tell you about Hobbs? How can you not have him return kicks?
After the defense again made quick work of the Jets, knocking Pennington to the sidelines with a Jarvis Green sack, Brady went back to Moss for 19 more before sending him deep through a morass of New York defenders, where he took in an on-target Brady bomb to the left flag for the controversial veteran’s first touchdown as a Patriot, and a two touchdown lead.
Pennington and the Jets fought back from his ankle injury to drive again, as Jones began to find open running room for the first time. He ran 4 times for 26 yards (half of his total for the day), and two Pennington strikes to tight end Chris Baker set up a second short touchdown by Coles. The lead was back to 7.
But it was all the Jets had. Brady and Sammy Morris made sure of that, as they both took the Pats on a drive that ate up 75 yards and more importantly, nearly eleven minutes from the clock. It ended with a 22 yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal, and Clemens began warming up for mop up duty.
Heath Evans added a short touchdown plunge with two minutes remaining.
It’s just one game, but it was a victory so complete that surely someone somewhere will lose their head and declare the division race over before it begins. I won’t go that far, yet, though the Patriots appeared so omnipotent on offense that I hardly recognized them. What a juxtaposition from last year at this time, when passes went awry and body language made headlines. This year, though there are even more new faces than in 06, the Patriots offense moved which such precision and ease that even the most ardent fanboy had to rub his eyes in disbelief of what he was seeing.
As for Moss, there are few superlatives that can adequately describe his immediate and stunning impact on the Patriots attack, so I won’t bother. Except to say that regardless of his well-publicized and well-earned foibles, New England has never had a receiver that was his equal. His route on the 51 yard bomb was stunning; bracketed by three men, Moss simply glided past them to an open area across the field, where he easily gathered in Brady’s accurate toss.
Brady finished with a 22/28/297/3 td (now at 150 on his career) line, and it’s unlikely he’s had a smoother or more tranquil day at the Pats controls. He’s found a fast friend in Welker, who worked quick routes to safe completions and first downs throughout. He and Moss combined for 15 catches and nearly 250 yards.
Maroney and Morris played a solid, albeit secondary role, but it was their steady hand in the early stages that set the Pats on their way. Ryan O’Callaghan joined the Pats offensive line often as a third tight end, and played well as Dante Scarnecchia’s unit had one of its better days.
On defense, Vrabel and Green were the leaders, combining for 4.5 sacks, while Wilfork and Warren ate up the middle. Adalius Thomas played an under-stated role, but proved valuable as a pass defender as he covered a lot of ground in the intermediate middle. He nearly picked off a Pennington pass on the Jets first possession. Asante Samuel and the Pats secondary played off the Jets receivers and, while Pennington had an efficient day, he could generate none of the big plays that vexed New England last season.
Returning vet Eugene Wilson led all Patriots tacklers with 8.
If any Patriot had a rough day, it was Matt Cassel, who as holder flubbed a Lonie Paxton snap that derailed an early field goal attempt. He was later replaced by Chris Hanson (who held Gostkowski’s successful 22 yarder), and when New England needed a backup quarterback to take the final snap, the coaches turned to Matt Gutierrez instead. Ouch.
With week one now satisfyingly under their belts, New England’s players and coaches will turn their attention to the San Diego Chargers, the other team who left the field for the final time in 06 grousing about the Patriots. They open the home schedule at Gillette Stadium next Sunday night.