FOXBOROUGH -- By the end of a 24-3 Patriots win over the Baltimore Ravens yesterday, the Patriots didn't know whether to sack Kyle Boller or to hug him.
If ever the mercy rule should have applied in the last 10 minutes of a professional football game, this was the time. Boller, the second-year quarterback from Cal, was stripped of the ball, and of his dignity, in the fourth quarter when the Patriots' Jarvis Green fell on a loose ball knocked away from Boller by Tedy Bruschi for the final score of the game.
Boller's jersey and body were covered with mud, blood, and slop in one of the more intense muggings the Patriots have handed a quarterback this season, though the four sacks the defense got credit for didn't do the beating justice. Boller went 15 for 35 for 93 yards, with one interception and a 38.4 rating.
"He'd had a pretty good run and had been very effective," said Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin of Boller. "We managed to keep control of him. If you can stop the run, then it makes any team one-dimensional, and that's what we were hoping for."
Boller said, "You want to take the dinks and dunks, but at some point you have to go deep in a game like that, and they just did a great job of protecting that."
While at halftime it was 3-3 and a defensive struggle, by the fourth quarter it was raining points -- for the Patriots. New England tacked on 21 unanswered points in the second half.
Adam Vinatieri made three field goals during a rainy, windy day at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots won their 17 straight. New England improved to 10-1 this season.
Heading into December, the only winning team New England will face is the New York Jets, which bodes well for what might be the best regular season in Patriots history.
There were no surprises in this one.
The Ravens defense didn't allow the Patriots a touchdown until three seconds into the fourth quarter, but the Patriots were able to control the ball on the ground with Corey Dillon surpassing the 1,000-yard mark with 123 yards on 30 carries.
It was the only time the third time a team had surpassed 100 yards rushing against the Ravens this season, and it was just the second time Dillon had run for 100 yards or more against Ray Lewis in 11 meetings against the All-Pro middle linebacker.
Though Boller hung in there for parts of three quarters, he eventually succumbed on the Bruschi strip.
"Vrabes had him," said Bruschi, referring to linebacker Mike Vrabel. "He managed to slip away, and I was able to sack him and strip the ball from him. Then it was a case of following the ball and trying to get in there, and Jarvis was able to fall on it in the end zone."
Such symmetry as the Patriots got one defensive score, one offensive score, and 9 points from field goals. The special teams didn't allow a kick return of longer than 28 yards, or a punt return of more than 12.
The defense held the Ravens to 124 net yards and only eight first downs, three of them on the ground. The Patriots held Chester Taylor, playing in place of the injured Jamal Lewis, to 61 yards on 16 carries. It was a unit once again playing without its top three cornerbacks, Ty Law, Tyrone Poole, and Asante Samuel, and one in which free safety Eugene Wilson moved to corner, Randall Gay, who picked off his second pass of the season, was at the other corner, and a combination of Wilson, Dexter Reid, Rodney Harrison, and even linebacker Don Davis saw time at safety.
In the end, the Patriots played their game in their conditions. The field was a mess, just like the Patriots like it after Thanksgiving.
"It was a lot of fun playing out there," Bruschi said. "The sloppier the better. Getting your uniform wet and dirty and playing in the mud, that's what you love if you're a football player."
It is not what the Ravens, who play on synthetic grass, loved. Not with Lewis missing. Not with Orlando Brown, their large right tackle, missing with an injury.
Yet it was tied at the half because the Patriots botched the final 1:08.
The Patriots were content to run out the clock. But after Tom Brady took a knee on first down, the Ravens called time. Dillon ran a sweep, but went out of bounds to stop the clock with 56 seconds remaining. On fourth down, Josh Miller punted, and on the play Matt Chatham drew a 15-yard facemask call. Tacked on to a Bruschi unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, the Ravens had first and 10 on the Patriot 16.
The Ravens moved it to the 4 with five seconds left, but Boller overthrew Randy Hymes in the end zone, forcing Matt Stover to kick the tying 22-yard field goal.
"I mean, yeah, I probably should have been looking at the clock and staying inbounds, but, hey, what was the score, 24-3? I don't think it really matters at this point," Dillon said.
The coaches were fuming about the faulty game-management.
"I didn't do a really good job with that," coach Bill Belichick said. "We run out of bounds. We got two 15-yard penalties on a punt. All the things you could do wrong, we did wrong."
From the players' point of view, "I think guys just knew they had to play better," Harrison said. "We were talking about it, but we remained pretty calm and knew if we went out there and played our game we'd be all right in the second half."
That's what they did.
Vinatieri hit a 40-yard field goal with 11:22 to play in the third after the Patriots took the second-half kickoff and made three first downs, two on Dillon runs. The Ravens had two three-and-outs in the quarter, unable to mount anything against the Patriot front seven.
The Patriots had a touchdown (Brady to David Patten for 23 yards) called back with 7:46 remaining on offensive interference on Patten, but they settled for the 48-yarder by Vinatieri at the lighthouse end of the field, where the wind wasn't quite as strong.
"If it was the other end of the field, we probably wouldn't have attempted it," Vinatieri said. "We had set the parameters before the game during the warmups. On that kick, I really didn't even make an adjustment for the wind. I didn't think it was going to be a factor, so I just kicked it straight."
Ahead, 9-3, the Patriots ended this one for all intents and purposes when the Ravens' defense finally tired late in the third quarter and early fourth. New England's drive started at the Ravens' 48 after a personal foul call on Baltimore.
The Patriots controled the ball with Dillon and got a big first down on a nifty move by Deion Branch on a third and 6 where he caught the ball short of the first-down marker and then jitterbugged his way to the 5. Dillon did the rest, scoring on a 1-yard run. The Patriots, wanting to put the Ravens in position for a two-touchdown comeback, handed off to Dillon again for the 2-point conversion and a 17-3 lead.
It was the defense's turn after that, and Boller took the brunt of the punishment. He could have used a hug.