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Compliments of the defense

Posted by Charles P. Pierce October 23, 2008 05:59 AM

Adalius Thomas hung his wraparound shades just above his wraparound grin. For the first time in over a fortnight, it was a good time to be a New England Patriot again. “We don’t talk about San Diego any more,” the linebacker said. “Denver? Oh yeah, we
can talk about Denver, at least until tomorrow or the next day.” In the dimming, but still vaguely perceptible, spotlight of “Monday Night Football,” the Denver Broncos had been rudely dispatched in Foxborough, 41-7, in what may be the most perfect demonstration yet of the applicability to the NFL of William Goldman’s classic line about Hollywood.

Nobody knows anything.

The Broncos came in at 4-2. They did so because a referee and a placekicker were both incompetent in consecutive weeks. Meanwhile, New England was coming off a 30-10 gouging by a San Diego team on which the Broncos had put 39 points in the second game of the season. In their previous three games, the Patriots had surrendered an average of 27 points a game, including 21 to the San Francisco 49ers, who’d otherwise been playing so well that they’d started the process of defenestrating their coach at just about the moment that Denver and New England took the field. Naturally, and even with New England down to its backup quarterback and its backup running backs, the smart money was on a shootout. So, one suspects, was the dumb money and the drunken money. But very few of the assembled inebriates in Gillette Stadium could have been prepared for the sudden re-emergence of the Patriots as a defensive force. Well, Bill Belichick said he was, but you know how he is.

“We had our best week of practice of the year and we played our best game of the year,” he said. “It was a good complementary, complete game.” This caused Tedy Bruschi to chuckle, and to expound on his own personal variation on the Goldman Rule.

“How do you measure that?” he asked. “We’ve had terrible, and I mean terrible, weeks of practice, and come out and played great on Sunday. And we’ve had great weeks of practice and then lost the game. The key is to have that good week of practice and then find a way to carry it over onto the field on Sunday.

“How do you do that? I mean, I don’t know.”

(It should be noted here that every Patriots postgame press conference contains a Secret Word that they agree on during that week’s practice. They all say it, as often as possible. This week’s word — “complementary” — popped up in every interview. Belichick and Matt Cassel were particularly fond of it. If you can guess the Secret Word, a duck comes down from the ceiling and you win a free half-a-movie at the Ottoman Empire Cinema, or whatever that movie palace at the end of the stadium is called.)

For the past several years, the general feeling was that, if anything bad were to befall Tom Brady — God forbid. Knock on wood. Leap over the cracks in the sidewalk — then Belichick would draw upon his inner defensive coordinator, feed his lifelong jones for scheming with linebackers, and otherwise fashion himself a reasonable facsimile of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. The team would feature a relatively simple-Simon offense, but it would ride an intelligent, ferocious defense to whatever success it might achieve. In fact, of course, Belichick did pretty much that very thing in 2001, when Drew Bledsoe went down and was replaced by Brady, who was handed the offensive syllabus a few pages at a time while the defense knocked people’s blocks off. Now, though, with Brady gone at the height of his considerable powers and the offense handed over to Cassel, who hadn’t started a football game since high school, the process seemed far more urgent this season than it did at the moment Mo Lewis performed his impromptu splenectomy on Bledsoe.

But the experiment didn’t begin at all well. The defense played decently, if not spectacularly, in the first two games, then seemed to fracture a bit, most notably against San Diego, when it made virtually no plays at all. Then, whatever happened in practice happened — don’t ask me or Tedy Bruschi to explain it — and the Patriots came out and hit the Broncos with 10 pounds of whip-ass in a five-pound bag. Richard Seymour had his best game of the year, three combined tackles and 1½ sacks, as well as stringing out the Denver running game on his side of the field. Moreover, Seymour and the rest of the defensive front finally gave the linebackers and the defensive backfield a chance to relax and make some plays. Rookie Jerod Mayo had eight tackles by himself, and New England turned Denver over five times, including two vital fumble recoveries that ended each of the first two Bronco possessions. It was very much what you might call a “complementary” effort.

Quack.

Sorry about that.

In fact, the whole defense seemed crisper than it had all season, as though the sharpness of the autumn air had put an edge on things. The hitting seemed louder and more emphatic, and the team’s identity seemed finally to come into vivid focus. The Patriots will be a playoff team, if they are a playoff team, because they become a great defensive team. How that will happen is anybody’s guess. Just don’t ask Bruschi. Or me. Nobody knows anything.

OT columnist Charles P. Pierce is a 
Boston Globe Magazine staff writer.

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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
Tony Massarotti is a Boston Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. He is currently spotlighted as a featured columnist on Boston.com.
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Tom Caron serves as studio host for NESN's Boston Red Sox coverage.
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Bob Lobel was a WBZ-TV sportscaster for 29 years, anchoring more than 10,000 sports reports.
Chad Finn is a sports reporter at the Globe and founder of the Touching All The Bases blog. Before joining the Globe, he was an award winning columnist at the Concord Monitor.

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