THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Jackie MacMullan

Like last year, in end they found a way

By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / September 10, 2004

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FOXBOROUGH -- You know that queasy feeling you get when you are careening down the highway with a reckless friend behind the wheel? You scream at him to pull over and let you out, but he keeps on gunning the motor, and you have no choice but to hang on for dear life and hope you live to laugh about it later.

The defending Super Bowl champion Patriots survived that kind of wild ride last night to outlast the Indianapolis Colts, 27-24, in their season opener, but nobody was quite ready to make light of a joyride that could have been disastrous.

In fact, it took a 48-yard field goal attempt from Mike Vanderjagt, a kicker who had hit 42 consecutive field goals, to drift wide right in the final seconds before the home team could finally exhale.

The Patriots wake up this morning knowing the film sessions ahead will be gruesome. They will undoubtedly be subjected to witnessing all 142 yards Edgerrin James rushed for in a losing cause. They will most certainly review the eight penalties for 55 yards, some that appeared to be the result of new, tighter restrictions in the defensive backfield. They will review a costly fumble by Deion Branch on a punt return.

They will also revel in the return of David Patten (4 catches, 86 yards, 1 touchdown), who was limited last year with shoulder and knee injuries, but caught some critical balls last night. And they will remain hopeful that some of their young defensive players such as Ty Warren, who caused a key James fumble in the third quarter and recorded seven tackles, can duplicate the contributions he made.

Amid all the offseason worries, whether absorbing the shock of Ted Washington bolting for Oakland (with Bobby Hamilton quietly following), or rationalizing the impact of offensive lineman Damien Woody running off to Detroit with a sackful of greenbacks in tow, a steadfast Patriot Nation soothed itself with a familiar, comforting balm: In Bill -- and in Brady -- we trust.

The disconcerting preseason results were merely a new wrinkle in preparing for a long, arduous season ahead. Rest the veterans. Save the starters. Forget about the stats.

Besides, New England had the best quarterback in the game.

Tom Brady always managed to make everything right.

Brady's first drive featured five receivers, six completions, no running backs, and a field goal.

His team's first defensive series featured an Indianapolis team moving the ball with ease all the way to the 6-yard line before Warren jumped into Peyton Manning's personal space, and enabled teammate Tedy Bruschi to pick off Manning's subsequent pass.

This is how it went all of last season. The offense scores, the defense produces big plays.

But that was last year. They warned us, these 2004 New England Patriots. They told us last year no longer mattered, and they were right.

The defense that held on last night for a win was not nearly as convincing as the group that marched this team to the championship podium. They were burned repeatedly on play-action. They were unable to corral James in the open field.

In fact, when you studied the offensive numbers, you wondered how on earth the Patriots won this game.

Rodney Harrison, the toughest guy on the team last year, was decidedly mortal in his 2004 debut. He was flagged for three penalties, and failed to deliver even one of those bone-crunching hits that so often revved up his boys. Ty Law battled injuries all night, and was on the sidelines for most of the fourth quarter.

"We made so many mistakes," lamented Harrison. "We're tired, we're happy, we're glad it's over."

They can thank Brady, who completed 26 of 38 passes for 335 yards and three touchdowns for bailing them out.

"You win and you move on," said Boston's most celebrated sports star. "We've got a lot of work to do."

James, who fumbled twice, including late in the fourth quarter on first and goal from the 1, understood why Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy conceded he was "the most disappointed I've been."

"You just can't make mistakes," James said. "You can do 10 things right and on the 11th do something wrong, and it's like you did everything for nothing."

It would be a stretch to say the Patriots were dominant, commanding, or anything that would suggest a championship outing. But they were winners.

Again.

In Bill we trust. In Brady we trust. In Ty Warren we trust? In David Patten we trust?

Too soon to say. Today is not the time for grand pronouncements, or sweeping conclusions.

It's merely a day the Patriots give thanks for avoiding a nasty pileup, and buckle up for the next journey.

Jackie MacMullan's column appears every Thursday. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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