Who are these guys? They’re division champs
FOXBOROUGH - One thing that never changes in sports: Success is relative. Always.
A year ago, the Patriots were on the wrong end of two tiebreakers. An 11-5 record wasn’t good enough to get into the tournament. This time, they could even mail one in next week against the Texans, go 10-6, and still start preparing for a home playoff game.
“Obviously, last year we didn’t do enough to get into the postseason,’’ said coach Bill Belichick, “and this year we did, relative to what our competition is.’’
Not for the first time in this peculiar season, we ask the question, “Who are these guys?’’ Not so long ago, Tom Brady was of the opinion that he was at the helm of a grind-it-out team, and there was no reason to question his evaluation. Now it looks as if the quarterback has upgraded his opinion of the 2009 New England Patriots.
“We played pretty good football today,’’ he said after his team had crushed the Jacksonville Jaguars yesterday by a 35-7 score. “If we play that way, I’d go up against anybody.’’
All the bad stuff this year happened on the road. Your Patriots finished 8-0 at Gillette Stadium, and this impressive two-way performance no doubt sent the fans home with visions of postseason sugar plums dancing in their heads.
It’s not like the Jags are terrible. They came in as one of the AFC’s innumerable 7-7 squads, and a week ago they made the Colts work pretty hard to emerge with a 35-31 victory. Nothing in the run-up to this game screamed, “Blowout!’’
But that’s what it was, all right, with the Patriots rolling to a 28-0 halftime lead; with Brady having an old-fashioned Brady day (23 of 26, 267 yards, four TDs, and zero picks); with Randy Moss catching three touchdown passes; with Wes Welker continuing his record-setting year by grabbing 13 more Brady aerials; with the running game piling up 197 yards; and with the defense holding the Jags to one score in nine possessions.
You know things are better than good when the mentor strides into the room for his postgame news conference wearing that Mona Lisa grin.
“That was a really nice performance by the players,’’ declared Coach Bill. “We had a really good week of practice. We did a good job of being focused on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. They stepped up and made play after play. I’m really proud of ’em. They earned what they got today.’’
The drama in this game was limited to the first quarter. The Patriots took the opening kickoff (Jacksonville won the toss but deferred), Julian Edelman returned it to the 17, and Brady directed them 82 yards to a first and goal at the 1. It was a gorgeous drive that featured five runs and four passes, and everything was going great until Laurence Maroney fumbled and the ball was recovered by Daryl Smith.
But things began to turn around on a Jacksonville third and 1 at its 35 when Brandon Meriweather sniffed out a reverse and stopped wide receiver Mike Thomas for no gain. Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio was feeling brave, so he went for it. You might do the same thing if you had Maurice Jones-Drew, but the New England defense rose up to deny his bid, and the Patriots had the ball back in beautiful field position.
Brady had to feel as if the original drive never had ended. Four plays later, he found Moss for 6 in the dead-center back of the end zone on what he said was a bit of wide receiver Improvisational Theater. The Jags really never recovered.
“That stop gave us a lot of confidence and showed them that we weren’t going to be pushed around,’’ said cornerback Leigh Bodden.
“Complementary football,’’ Brady said. “We talk about that a lot.’’
The rest of us have been talking about Moss the past two weeks, and yesterday he demonstrated just how essential to the offense he is. The final numbers weren’t all that gaudy (four catches for 45 yards), but three of them were for touchdowns, which is pretty good when you’re only targeted five times. Randy was in a particularly playful mood after his third TD grab, as he interacted with a fan being given prominent display on the big screen.
“When things go right,’’ Moss explained, “you get the fans in the game, you get the players in the game, so it was a stadium full of fun today, and I think we all enjoyed it.’’
“Obviously, you can see the kind of impact he can have on the game when he makes those plays,’’ said Brady.
Brady downplayed the performance that put him over the 4,000-yard mark for the third time in his career. “When we’re completing a lot of passes,’’ he said, “it’s really a lot of things. It’s guys getting open and great protection and great play-calling, so it makes it pretty easy on me when those guys are standing there wide open, and it’s my job to hit them.’’
He would return to the issue of his protection, citing the interesting fact that he has not been sacked in four games. Wait till Ben Roethlisberger hears that.
“Fifteen sacks all season,’’ said Brady. “That’s one a game. I mean, that’s a remarkable job by the men up front and Dante [Scarnecchia], the way he coaches those guys.’’
That’s one of many positives the Patriots took from this game. Seeing Sammy Morris run as well as he did was another. The performance of a reasonably cohesive defense (even without Vince Wilfork) was still another.
It’s nice to have a day like this any time, but when you do it in order to achieve a goal, it makes it even more satisfying.
“It’s good to walk off that field as AFC East champions this year, and I’m really proud of the way our players stepped up and played today,’’ said Coach Bill.
What? Is there anything more to say?