by Christopher Price
Living in Massachusetts, we’ve learned to accept the fact that there are some constants in life: There will always be corruption on Beacon Hill. Hollywood will continue to mock our accents by placing Ben Affleck in every Boston-based film imaginable. And despite any distractions, the Patriots and Bill Belichick will be able to focus on any job that’s been placed in front of them.
With a national television audience salivating at the possibility of Belichick being humbled by the mighty Chargers — just days after he was humbled by commissioner Roger Goodell over the Patriots illegal videotaping of the Jets’ defensive coaches — New England weathered the storm again Sunday night against the Chargers, showing remarkable resiliency in a 38-14 smackdown in front of a sold-out Gillette Stadium crowd. The win was impressive, as the Patriots dominated on both sides of the football and gave themselves an early lead in the race for home-field in the AFC playoffs.
But more importantly, it proved that, once again, when it comes to crisis management, no one holds a candle to Belichick and the Patriots.
“I think we do a great job as a team and as an organization on keeping what is going on outside, outside,” said nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who helped the defense bottle up running back LaDainian Tomlinson (43 rushing yards). “We only care about what is going on in here; how we can stop this team. That is the only thing we are concerned about.”
“I think over the years we’ve had a lot of distractions from week to week, and this team and our coaches have always done a great job of keeping us focused,” said quarterback Tom Brady, who shredded the San Diego defense for three passes touchdowns and led New England to a total of 407 yards on the night. “I think this team did a nice job the last few weeks of putting some distractions behind us, and realizing that the most important thing is coming out and trying to win football games.”
Brady knows of what he speaks. In truth, the latest flareup is the third major possible distraction in the last seven seasons for the Patriots and Belichick. In 2001, it was a burgeoning quarterback controversy between Brady and Drew Bledsoe that threatened to sabotage the season. And in 2003, the Patriots released veteran safety Lawyer Milloy in the days leading up to their Week 1 matchup with the Bills. After Milloy signed with Buffalo, the Bills routed the Patriots, 31-0. Both incidents remain as defining moments in seasons that ended with Super Bowl wins, with their ability to focus on the overall task at hand — namely winning football games, despite the many distractions swirling around them — serving as the most impressive overall characteristic of each of those teams.
Will Sunday’s game be remembered the same way? No one yet knows, but the sort of resiliency Belichick and the franchise developed in those difficult days in 2001 and 2003 has prepared them well for this season. The 2007 Patriots lost their two best defensive players (Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison) for at least the first four weeks of the season to injury and a suspension for HGH. And their entire Super Bowl legacy was called into question by cynics because of the videotaping scandal involving the Jets in Week 1. It’s a series of events that would have been crippling to most teams, especially when faced with the prospect of playing the high-octane Chargers, one of the best offenses in the league.
For the Patriots? It was just another week at the office, one that ended in a familiar fashion.
“We went through a lot this week, but we blocked it all out,” said linebacker Tedy Bruschi. “For everything that went on this week, we just had to focus on winning the game. Just win a game the way we’ve always done it, the way we’ve always prepared. Nothing special.”
FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR THIS WEEK
1. How the Bills’ offensive line does protecting J.P. Losman. Last season, the Buffalo offense ran a max-protect scheme 18 percent of the time, the second-most in the league. Expect more of the same this week as they try and neutralize the Patriots pass rush. New England enters the game with eight sacks, the fourth-best mark in the league.
2. How the Patriots defend defensive end Aaron Schobel. The New England offensive line has traditionally struggled against speed rushers like Schobel in the past — the former TCU standout has six sacks of Brady the last two seasons, more than traditional Brady nemesis Jason Taylor has had in that span.
3. Can the Bills’ slow down the Patriots passing offense? Buffalo has allowed an average of 267.5 passing yards in the first two games of the season (27th-best in the league). New England has averaged 280 passing yards through the first two games (fourth-best in the league). Could be a long afternoon for the Buffalo secondary.
4. Marshawn Lynch. Barring injury, Sunday’s game against the Bills will likely mark the only time this season the Patriots’ defense will face a team with a rookie as the featured back. With such a limited resume, New England doesn’t have much to go on when it comes to defending the youngster, who has an impressive 154 rushing yards through two games against the Broncos and Steelers.
5. Focus. The Patriots were able to maintain their focus throughout the week leading up to the Chargers game, keeping their minds on the task at hand instead of the off-field videotaping flap. Can they do the same thing this week against the Bills?
STAT OF THE WEEK
With Sunday night’s win, Tom Brady improved to 56-2 in his regular season career when holding a halftime lead. Sunday’s game marked the second straight contest where New England scored on its opening possession, and it’s the first time in Patriots history they have begun the season with consecutive opening-drive touchdowns.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“They just jumped on us like a spider monkey.” Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal on the Patriots fast start Sunday night — New England jumped to a 24-0 first-half lead on the way to the 38-14 win.
Christopher Price is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the Patriots since 2001 for Boston Metro. He’s served a contributor to ESPN.com, SI.com, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. His book “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower” will be released Oct. 16 by Thomas Dunne Books. He can be reached at [email protected].