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ON FOOTBALL

Impressive exhibition of domination

PHILADELPHIA -- As they say from space, "Hello, Houston?" If ever a pro football team looked to be heading to Houston next February, it was the Patriots last night. Sure, it was an exhibition game that will mean nothing a month from now, when they return to Lincoln Financial Field to play the Philadelphia Eagles, but for one night in August, the Patriots could do no wrong.

By the time coach Bill Belichick called off the dogs, the Patriots led, 24-3, in a game they would ultimately win, 24-12, to improve to 3-0. Their offense tore apart one of the best defenses in the NFL and their defense squashed the Eagles' offense whether it was trying to run the ball or throw it.

"That was pretty impressive," said one AFC scout in attendance. "This is a very good defense the Patriots just tore up."

You would have never known it watching Tom Brady and David Patten play pitch and catch all night. When Brady finally came out of the game, he was 14 of 24 for 148 yards yards and had thrown three touchdown passes, two to Patten. Surely the Eagles' defense, which is one of the best in football, will take a far different approach when the teams meet again in the second week of the season. Still, this was a thrashing worthy of note.

"Ultimately, they moved the ball up and down the field on us," said Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent. "They threw it when they wanted to throw it and they ran it when they wanted to run it. They did what they wanted to do."

And no one did that more than Patten, who had five receptions for 81 yards, an average of 16.2 yards a catch. Add in those two scores and a 23-yard tightrope act down the sideline that might have gone for a third touchdown had he not been pushed out of bounds at the 5-yard line to open the third quarter and you had a young man making a statement.

Not long ago, more than a few scribners had Patten on the bubble but he looked last night like the same player he was two years ago when he burst onto the scene to become a starter. Last night, Patten hauled in five passes and turned two of them into touchdowns, showing his speed, his hands, and his deft footwork.

If you want to be a nitpicker, the Patriots didn't run the ball well, but when your third-down efficiency is 71 percent in the first half and your opponent's is 17 percent, you don't have to run the ball all that well. Whatever the Patriots did worked about as well as it can, including a nifty two-minute drill at the end of the first half in which Brady came off the bench to replace Damon Huard and took the Patriots 79 yards in 13 plays.

During that drive, the Patriots faced three third-down situations and converted all of them. In other words, they did about everything you could ask of a team that intends to play its last game at Reliant Stadium in February when everything is on the line. After it was over, they said all the right things about the relative importance of what they had just accomplished.

"We're not near the point of where we need to be when we play Buffalo [to open the season]," Brady said. "We have a lot of things to work on, with four turnovers. They dropped some interceptions, too. I'm sure they won't be dropping them in three weeks. I know it will be different in three weeks when their first-stringers are playing the whole game and they're game-planning for us. The game is so much faster than practice.

"That's why I'm glad we have another preseason game. You gotta be ready for that first game."

The Patriots were certainly ready for the third exhibition game. Brady in particular was little short of spectacular. This summer he is 26 of 46 for 318 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions, and boasts a 114.2 efficiency rating. Nobody really knows what those quarterback ratings mean, but once they get above 90 one thing is sure: The guy is efficient. Defensively the story was much the same. The addition of massive nose tackle Ted Washington paid dividends on the very first series. His mere presence in the middle (if you can use that phrase about someone who should have "wide load" rather than "Washington" on the back of his jersey) made a huge difference.

When Washington stood over center, it looked like poor 300-pound Hank Fraley should have changed his name to "Frailey." He looked like a midget and had about as much luck moving Washington as a midget might have when asked to push a load that's upward of 400 pounds, give or take a block of cement.

"We got a load in the middle now," safety Lawyer Milloy said.

By the end of the third quarter, New England had controlled the ball for 26 minutes 12 seconds, nearly an eight-minute disparity. It had sacked elusive Donovan McNabb three times. It had forced two fumbles and recovered them both (they also fumbled twice and lost both of them, but who's counting?). They had successfully concluded an impressive two-minute drill and they had driven 74, 70, and 61 yards for touchdowns while not giving up an offensive touchdown.

Perhaps there was something they didn't do right. Certainly Bill Belichick will find it today, a point he seemed to make when he grumbled, "We're a long way from being anywhere yet."

True. At the moment they are 0-0, just like their 31 competitors in the race to reach Houston and the Super Bowl. Last night they were not perfect, because no team and no game ever is. But what little they mishandled was hardly enough to temper what will surely be some wild-eyed enthusiasm back home today.

And why not?

Three weeks from now this will all be meaningless, sure enough. When they come back to play the real Eagles, it will more than likely be a far different game. But if the Patriots play as efficiently and as enthusiastically as they did last night, they may be the right dog for that fight. And for a lot of other ones, too.

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