v. 1: To blow it. <Dude, I Favred my final exam.>
2: To screw someone over. <Somehow both Pats and Jets fans got Favred.>
Like Sunday’s blustery elements in Orchard Park, New York, this season remained out of the Patriots’ control. New England fans got the first half of what they needed, a 13-0 win by their team; the second half of their wish list went unanswered, as both the Jets and the Jaguars failed to beat the Dolphins and the Ravens, respectively. Thus, Miami took the AFC East crown while the Ravens nabbed the remaining wild card spot, leaving no room for the 11-5 Patriots.
Favre. v. 1: To complete fifty percent of your passes and throw three interceptions in your final game of an over-glorified season.
You know what? The Patriots won their last game of the year. Let’s appreciate that, at least for the next several paragraphs.
As they have for much of 2008, the Bills did the one thing they couldn’t, turning the ball over early in the second half. After Mike Vrabel recovered Jarvis Green’s strip sack of quarterback Trent Edwards on Buffalo’s 43, New England began the lone touchdown drive of the day.
Following both teams’ first-half game plans, the Patriots continued running against the wind (hey, unintentional Bob Seger reference). Sammy Morris (24 rushes, 85 yards) picked up a first down with two runs. LaMont Jordan (20 runs, 64 yards, one TD) came in for an eight-yard run. On third and one, Jordan got stopped for a loss by linebackers Kawika “Last-name-first” Mitchell and Paul “Way-too-many-consonants” Posluszny, but a well-executed fourth-down call saw Cassel fake the handoff and run up the middle for the necessary yardage (credit Jordan with a swell cut-block that helped clear a path).
I was going to describe the fourth-down play as “gutsy,” but with the way the previous field goal attempts had kited, going for it was the best choice. That decision looked even better on the ensuing fourth down, when Cassel threw a surprise pass against the wind to Wes Welker. Coming out of the three-receiver “bunch” formation, Welker ran an out toward the left sideline, took the pass and motored 12 yards to the two. From there, Jordan slid through a gap in the right side of the line to give the Pats a 10-0 lead with 4:39 left in the third, wrapping up a six-minute possession.
If 10-0 didn’t ice it, New England’s last scoring drive made this contest cooler than a woolly mammoth. The Pats drove 80 yards to get Stephen Gostkowski within field goal range (and with the type of wind that sent Dorothy’s house to Munchkinland, that was no mean feat). In 15 plays, the visitors ran ten times (Morris eight, Jordan two) to take eight minutes off the clock bridging the third and fourth quarters. Cassel completed three of four passes, converting two key third downs (one an eight-yarder to Kevin Faulk, the other a 14-yarder to Welker). His last pass of the drive skimmed off Randy Moss’ fingertips in the end zone, leaving Gostkowski to boot the ball through the wind for a 23-yard field goal and the final, 13-0 advantage with 10:18 left.
The Bills’ fourth-quarter effort resembled most of my forays as a single man: fruitless and a little embarrassing. With almost seven minutes left, Buffalo faced a fourth and one at New England’s 39. Yes, Edwards had been passing well against a lessening wind (14 of 25, 128 yards), but the visiting defense had no answer for Fred Jackson (27 rushes, 136 yards). The home team needed one yard to continue the drive and increase the pressure.
They should have run it, right? I mean, wouldn’t you have run that thing? Instead, Coach Dick Jauron watched his QB’s pass veer to the right of Josh Reed. Patriots’ ball.
Compare that bit of futility to the Pats’ follow-up possession: Jordan ran twice for two yards, taking time off the clock. On third and eight from their own 41, Cassel punted. That’s right, he quick-kicked, sending the ball up into the waiting wind. With no returner back for the Bills, the gusts pushed it to the two-yard line. While most onlookers had sat wondering how to convert third down, Coach Bill Belichick and Co. had thought ahead. After all, if Buffalo boasted great special teams units, why not avoid them?
The Bills then went on a dentist’s-office drive, the kind that seemed to take forever and resulted in pain. They took 15 plays to get to New England’s 34, but on fourth and 10 Jerod Mayo sprinted around left end to corral Edwards on the right side after a one-yard gain. Two-and-a-half minutes later, the visitors had kept their post-season hopes breathing. At least until the Jets buried them in the Meadowlands.
(Oh, Jets. We always knew you stunk, but did you have to prove it to us on this particular weekend?)
Because of the stakes, Pats/Bills had the feeling of a playoff game from the beginning. New England took the wind in the first quarter and stacked the box on defense, getting as many as nine defenders near the line of scrimmage. Despite this lineup, Jackson ran three straight times for four yards each carry, then busted upfield for a six-yarder on rush number four. Green figured prominently on the next two plays, stopping Jackson and then Xavier Omon for no gain (with help from Vince Wilfork and Junior Seau, respectively). The usually-golden foot of Brian Moorman could only muster a 13-yard punt, setting up the Pats at midfield.
New England didn’t make it easy early. Morris gained nine yards on two carries, but on third and one Jordan got swarmed for a loss, due in part to center Dan Koppen getting pushed back like a shopping cart. To make matters worse, the Pats’ decision to go for it on fourth down and two got negated by a Nick Kaczur false start. On the punt, New England had a huge opportunity when the ball touched Leodis McKelvin’s hand, but poorly-described “specialist” Matthew Slater failed to come up with it in the end zone.
When Jackson could only muster eight yards on three carries (credit linebackers Seau, Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin), the Patriots got the ball back on their own 37 to begin the opening scoring drive of the day. Cassel threw his first pass of the game to Heath Evans, who galloped to Buffalo’s 44. After Morris ran twice for 11 yards total, Evans caught another pass for 12 (with two catches for 31 yards, Evans was the team’s leading receiver). Unable to advance beyond the 15, New England called on Gostkowski to get three. He did, giving the visitors a 3-0 lead with three minutes left in the first quarter that felt disappointing at the time.
Any questions about the wind’s effects came to an end during Rian Lindell’s field goal attempt early in the second. Lindell’s 45-yard try started on a compensatory left slant; however, once the wind hit, it careened to the right like a clay pigeon. Gostkowski missed a kick of his own at the other end after a seven-minute possession.
Buffalo failed to take advantage of a drive late in the half when, with no timeouts, they ran the ball and couldn’t get the field goal unit ready in time for an attempt. The Patriots led 3-0 at halftime, with both sides believing they should have had more.
Defensively, New England had trouble getting off the field on third down again (Buffalo converted nine of 17), but the fourth-down stops and strip-sack made the difference. Green had two sacks to go with his five tackles. Old man Seau led with nine tackles, followed by James Sanders with eight and Mayo with seven. Had they determined earlier that it’s better to tackle Jackson low than go on a series of Nantucket Sleigh Rides, defensive backs Brandon Meriweather and Ellis Hobbs would have been more effective stopping the run. But I’m not complaining. It seems silly to complain after a shutout.
The Patriots needed to get younger on defense this year, and they did, at least until injuries forced them to call on Seau and Colvin (and possibly Pepper Johnson if it got any worse). Rookies Mayo, Gary Guyton and Jonathan Wilhite showed promise while youngsters Meriweather and Sanders continued to flourish. Throw in Vince Redd, Terence Wheatley and Pierre Woods (the latter two on IR), and next year’s roster has myriad possibilities. And that’s not even including three potential first-day draft picks.
We don’t know what will happen with Cassel. Wherever he plays, whether it’s Detroit, San Francisco, or even back in Foxboro, we should hope that he’s happy. And rich. Because when he was called to action in September, he delivered. Unlike a certain other quarterback.
Thank you to everyone at Patriots Daily for all their help in putting out a column just about every week. Keep watching this space for playoff and Pats’ off-season commentary. (Off-season. Ugh.)