First, the good news: the Patriots’ 49-26 dismantling of the Raiders on a rainy day in Oakland kept them in the hunt for post-season play. New England scored touchdowns on their first four possessions, racing out to a 28-7 lead early in the second quarter, largely due to quarterback Matt Cassel (18 for 30 passing, 218 yards, four touchdowns, one Benjamin-Watson-tipped interception). The Pats had 487 total yards of offense.
This game was almost the opposite of last week’s tense-off at Seattle. When the Patriots went up 42-14 at the beginning of the third, fans sat back and sighed in relief. New England stayed in contention with a 9-5 record, nominally tied atop the AFC East.
Now let’s get the bad news out of the way. The Pats lost two more players to injury (tackle Matt Light, linebacker Gary Guyton) during this game, which could impact future contests. Meanwhile, the Jets won this week thanks to Buffalo putting the game in quarterback J. P. “Loose Cannon” Losman’s hands, even though running back Marshawn Lynch averaged over six yards a carry. With 2:06 remaining, Losman dropped back, got sacked, and fumbled. Sean Ellis recovered and scored the game-winner. Nice work there, Buff.
Miami, meanwhile, took care of San Francisco, 14-9. Among myriad other scenarios, New Englanders find themselves hoping for a Jets loss to Seattle next week and a Miami loss to New York in Week 17. And maybe a scandal involving Brett Favre, but let’s not get all greedy.
This is hard to say, but someone must: the Patriots as currently constructed would have a hard time beating Boston University’s football team, much less a bunch of professionals. (For those of you who don’t know much about B. U. football, here’s some history. You see my point.)
One play showed fans how steep this uphill climb could be. With 5:45 remaining in the third quarter, Raider Darren McFadden swept to his right. Linebackers Rosevelt Colvin and Junior Seau (they of the formerly retired set) seemed in decent position to make the tackle, but McFadden ran around them like a deer past a couple of tree stumps. Twelve yards, first down. Oakland scored two plays later on what was quite possibly the best pass of quarterback JaMarcus Russell’s career, a fade to Ronald Curry in the right corner of the end zone past (seriously, this is true) Ellis Hobbs.
Now, as a New England fan, you’re saying, “Hold on, there! You can’t count a third-quarter score against them! The game was decided! These guys just need some work!”
First off: stop yelling. I can’t hear you. Second: one team can only take so much. Guyton is a solid cover linebacker (there’s a reason Oakland had success with those short passes to McFadden: three for 68 yards); Light is their starting left tackle (though Mark LeVoir stepped in well). James Sanders is out. Tedy Bruschi is out. When you think about it, it’s actually kind of amazing this team has nine wins.
But enough with the negative stuff. Much praise goes to Cassel, who overcame personal tragedy to have a remarkable game. Any questions on how his father’s death would affect him were answered on the Patriots’ first possession. Starting at Oakland’s 40 after a three-and-out and 14-yard punt return by Kevin Faulk, New England mixed passes with runs by Sammy Morris (14 for 117 yards, one TD) and Kevin Faulk (six rushes for 45 yards, six catches for 66 and the TD I’m about to mention). Cassel converted three third downs, the first two on respective 16- and seven-yarders to Wes Welker (six catches, 69 yards, one TD). On third and goal, Cassel hit Faulk from seven yards out, the running back crossing from right to left. Faulk ditched his man at the five and picked up a block by Welker to find wide-open spaces and a 7-0 Patriots lead less than five minutes into the game.
The visitors benefited from a 26-yard punt to start their next possession at Oakland’s 35. Morris broke for 15 yards up the middle. Two plays later, Cassel stepped up in the pocket to avoid the pass rush and threaded a line drive to Randy Moss near the left pylon, with Moss beating safety Rashad Baker on the play (Moss totalled five grabs for 67 yards and two touchdowns). Up 14-0, New England still had almost eight minutes left in the first quarter.
After their third consecutive three and out, the home team watched their guests embark on a nine-play drive to take a 21-0 lead. Cassel’s passing, Morris’ running and Oakland’s rule-breaking (16 yards on a holding penalty by – watch spellcheck go nuts – Nnamdi Asomugha) got the Patriots to the Raider 29-yard-line. From there, Morris started up the middle, took a swift right turn and cut upfield past sliding cornerback Chris Johnson for the touchdown. With 3:43 left in the first quarter, the Pats had a 21-0 lead as Oakland fans looked at themselves in their over-the-top costumes and gained a brief, shocking moment of self-awareness.
(I’m just kidding. That never happened. Those crazy S.O.B.’s still wear makeup and plastic skulls, even though their team hasn’t finished .500 in forever. God bless ‘em.)
In the midst of the downpour, both teams’ defenders started acting as if they were playing on a Slip ‘N Slide. Hobbs became victim to the conditions, falling down as Johnny Lee Higgins took a short pass and cut up the sideline for 56 yards and the touchdown. New England blitzed on the play, demonstrating once again why the coaches are hesitant to send extra defenders after the opposing team’s QB. It didn’t help that Hobbs was only slightly closer to Higgins than Pats fans were as they watched from the East Coast.
For all the excitement the first quarter provided, the beginning of the second quarter saw three TDs scored in 33 seconds. Cassel finished off a seven-play, three-minute drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Welker. Up 28-7, the Pats looked like they could cruise to the win, but Oakland’s Justin Miller ran back the ensuing kickoff for 91 yards to cut the lead to 28-14. Hobbs played copycat, returning the following Raiders’ kick for a 95-yard TD and a more comfy 35-14 score.
The QBs traded interceptions before the half. Cassel’s came on the aforementioned tipped ball by Watson that would have given them a first down deep in Oakland territory. Rookie Jonathan Wilhite picked off Russell at the one-yard line three minutes later. New England looked to add a late field goal in the final seconds but an illegal motion penalty and subsequent clock runoff prevented them from doing so.
The Patriots’ ineffective end of the first half got overshadowed by their scoring drive to open the second. After Cassel threw two consecutive passes to Moss, Morris took a handoff left, shuffled to the middle, found some daylight and plowed ahead for a total of 35 yards inside Oakland’s 10. Cassel then found Moss working his way from left to right at the back of the end zone: touchdown, Pats, 42-14 at 11:36 in the third.
Both rain and an appreciation of the inevitable made the rest of this one sloppy. The Raiders sandwiched two touchdowns around the final Patriots score, a LaMont Jordan “Remember Me, Oakland?” 49-yard rumble to the right side behind solid blocking (including a surprisingly effective kickout by tight end David Thomas).
So, where does this win put the Pats? For the next six days, pundits and warblers alike will discuss the probability of New England making the playoffs. Maybe this team won’t get any help from others, and maybe they’ll end up as the only 11-5 squad to miss the postseason. Considering most of us figured this year had swirled around the bowl eight minutes in, it’s nice to think that at least New England has a chance.
Chris Warner’s ‘Game Day Rear View’ appears after every game on Patriots Daily. He can be reached at [email protected].