by Scott Benson
The New England Patriots became the first team in NFL history to start the season with fifteen consecutive victories with yesterday’s 28-7 win over the Miami Dolphins.
It was also New England’s 18th consecutive regular season win, tying the league record they set in 2004.
The Pats were a bit two-faced in this one – New England’s blue-ribbon offense overwhelmed Miami with four first-half scoring drives before suffering their first scoreless half of the season with a curiously futile effort over the final 30 minutes.
The Pats defense remained steady throughout, locking down Miami’s passing game with a pass rush that sacked Cleo Lemon seven times.
A few leftover thoughts on the morning after:
*The big story this week was Bill Belichick jumping on the Patriots with both feet when they arrived to work on Wednesday, then forcing the team to practice in full pads for the rest of the week, a rare move at this time of the season. The concern was progressively sloppy play over the past few weeks that belied the team’s perfect record. The tightening down of the screws seemed to pay off in the first half yesterday, as the Pats came out crisply and with considerable emotion. Any hope that 1-13 Miami may have had to keep it close and steal one was quickly dismissed with extreme prejudice.
*Which is good, because in the second half, the Patriots offense struggled to possess the ball more than a few plays at a time. After a first half in which he threatened to tie or even break the league’s record for touchdown passes, Tom Brady was intercepted twice and stripped once, before giving way to Matt Gutierrez with four minutes remaining and only one TD pass needed to tie the record Peyton Manning set in 2004. A Gillette Stadium crowd that had waited patiently for the chance to see history would go home unfulfilled.
*Too bad Kevin Mannix retired – if he hadn’t, he’d be making the case for consumer fraud this morning. Which would have been hilarious – a pundit condemning the Patriots for NOT scoring meaningless late touchdowns. You know Kevin would not have disappointed.
*Randy Moss had two first-half scores (#’s 20 & 21) on expert short throws from Brady, putting him one behind Jerry Rice for the all-time mark for touchdown receptions in a season. In the second half, it began to appear that the Patriots were intent on getting both Brady and Moss over the hump. The Dolphins wouldn’t cooperate, surrounding Moss with as many as three defenders on practically every route. Brady tried anyway (emboldened by one second quarter prayer sailed directly through the hands of Lance Schulters, turning a sure interception into an easy 48 yard TD to Jabar Gaffney), resulting in one fugly second half that left the Pats looking like anything but a team pursuing history.
*Due credit for this goes to the Pats offensive line and some horrifyingly bad second-half pass blocking, particularly by tackles Nick Kaczur and Matt Light, who was just abused by a youthful-looking Jason Taylor. Brady was sacked three times and knocked to the ground on several other attempts.
*With the Pats dressing just one tight end (Stephen Spach), they were in three and four-wide formations all day. Once, when the New England defense turned aside a second-half Miami drive in the red zone, the Pats threw three straight shotgun passes from their own one yard line. Each one was incomplete.
*I couldn’t help but wonder why they didn’t try at least one handoff to Laurence Maroney on that possession. Maroney had broken two first-half runs of more than 50 yards (the second, a 59 yard burst on 3rd and 1 than ended in the end zone, was the longest of his career) on the way to his best game as a pro. I’m glad for the boost in confidence for the second-year man, but I’m even happier for some Pats run blocking that was damn near perfect on those plays. Heath Evans threw two high-profile blocks that allowed Maroney to race untouched into the Miami secondary, a thrilling sight.
*As expected, the Pats activated Troy Brown for their final home game of the season, and the legendary veteran dropped back on several Miami punts. He shockingly allowed one to strike him in the facemask, resulting in the Pats first turnover of the day (and an oh-so-brief benching), but later, a 28 yard sprint through coverage recalled the best moments of his brilliant career.
*As noted above, the Pats defense avoided the second half malaise of their offensive counterparts. Yeah, they allowed the Fins to average nearly 5 yards a carry, but most of that with a three score lead and the Pats guarding against a quick score. Otherwise, they held Lemon to under 50% passing and just 170 yards on nearly 50 attempts. Mike Vrabel, Ty Warren, Jarvis Green, Richard Seymour and Junior Seau all had sacks, with pro bowler Vrabel notching the highest regular-season sack total (11.5) for New England in nearly 20 years. Granted, the Pats will face much tougher tests down the road, but for now, their defense looks on track to begin the playoffs.
*Of course, there is the little matter of a perfect regular-season first. The Pats run defense will most certainly be tested in that one.
*That’s it for today. For all of us at Patriots Daily, have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, one and all. See you next week.