August 29, 2004
At Carolina, PANTHERS win, 20-17
By Pats67

Well, this is just great. I suppose we’re going to have to give back the trophy now?

That had to be the shortest title reign in history. In defense of the Patriots, I think it’s kind of crummy that the NFL suddenly decides to move the Super Bowl to August, but still, it wasn’t the NFL that turned over the fourth quarter of a championship game to its third string quarterback. Is it just me, or did that seem a little arrogant to you, too?

Yet it wasn’t even the most arrogant move of the night. That one goes to the Carolina fans, who piled out of the stands – while their team still trailed – to get an early jump on the victory parade. They obviously knew they had us, but they didn’t have to rub our noses in it. I’lll leave it to them to explain to Rodney Peete why they weren’t there for his first touchdown pass since the Truman Administration.

The only good thing about this game is that all of a sudden, getting hammered by Cincinnati in a meaningless pre-season game seems kind of, well, meaningless. Its small potatoes compared to blowing a fourth quarter lead in the Super Bowl. NOW we got problems.

Actually, we don’t. That was a pretty fair country football game our boys played last night, and for now, we can put last week’s stink bomb safely in the “so what?” pile. The third week of August typically offers the conditions that most closely approximate those of the regular season, and the Patriots responded with an effort (with asterisks; more later) that at times wouldn’t look entirely out of place on Three Games to Glory II.

Before we move on, allow me to say a few words about the Carolina Panthers. It’s not often that I have anything complimentary to say about anyone, least of all opponents of the Patriots, but I’m telling you, I loves me my Panthers.

With all due respect to the Tennessee Titans, no NFL team provides a more competitive challenge for New England. Though their all-world, all-mouth defense hasn’t yet to find a way to slow down Tom Brady & Co., John Fox and the Panthers still manage to stay step-for-step with the Pats when they meet. I think that’s because you can find more heart and guile in Jake Delhomme’s little finger than you can at an entire Manning family reunion.

I hear the grim prognostications of imminent obscurity for Delhomme, and I’m not buying them.

Patriots on Offense

(Cue heavenly choir) Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Listen, if you don’t know by now that Tom Brady is the best quarterback in the NFL, you’ve got rocks in your head. Crack rocks.

Watching him last night, I decided that if Brady was somebody else’s quarterback, I would absolutely hate him. I’d probably think he was a system quarterback who got too much credit for his team’s success. I’d probably make a few man-purse cracks on the Internet. Because deep in my little black heart would lie the painful realization that my team was going to have to get up pretty early to put one over on Tom Brady. To compensate, I would loathe him.

Last night would have driven me crazy, as Brady was sharp from the first snap, accurately hitting David Patten and Deion Branch in early possessions. He continued to click consistently with both before finally yielding the floor to Toastmaster Kliff Kingsbury and his Stupid Interception Orchestra with a quarter to play.

High point: In the 2nd quarter, through a maze of false starts and holding calls, Brady slicing like the proverbial hammer, connecting with both Daniel Graham and Ben Watson for touchdowns. A horrid second-half interception by Dan Morgan (did Corey Dillon run the right route on that?) did nothing to change the bottom line: this Brady kid is good. I think it’s safe to start the season with him.

There’s plenty of backslapping to go around this week. Slap one goes to the offensive line. Drew Bledsoe may have that four-second alarm clock thing going, but last night Brady seemed to be using a sun dial. They could have shown a movie during some of those pass plays. And this is against a defensive front seven that’s supposed to be pretty good. Huzzahs to the five returning starters, who with back-ups Stephen Neal, Adrian Klemm and Brandon Gorin, mixed-and-matched in different yet effective combinations throughout the first three quarters.

The o-line also opened a few nice creases for Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk, but ahem, the Patriots were a pass-first, run-later team last night. That is still Charlie Weis over there on the sideline.

Back slap two goes to David Patten. Shame on us for even discussing his possible departure. We were reminded last night that a healthy Patten makes the Patriots a better team. He’s no fringe player trying to beat out PK Sam. It doesn’t appear Patten’s lost a thing in the speed, savvy and clutch departments, and he’s had the best pre-season of any Pats receiver.

Next up is Ben Watson. I want to retract any and all previous statements that may have indicated that I’m anything but wildly enthusiastic about the Pats rookie TE. I blame an over-the-counter cold medication for any regrettable comments I may have made.

It’s patently obvious now that Watson, as more than one message board soothsayer predicted, will be a major component of the Pats offense. He lined up in two TE sets with Graham, took the traditional fullback spot in the I formation, and seemed to play a H-back role on some occasions, and he did all of it in the finest tradition of “smooth – and polished.” No kidding. Barring something catastrophic, that was one hell of a make-up pick.

As for Dillon, he’s yet to put up the kind of run that makes abundantly clear the difference between him and Antowain Smith, but he did show some nice cutback skills last night, and I知 getting the feeling that when Dillon gets fully warmed-up, he’s going to be a load. The good kind.

Patriots on Defense

Bill Belichick may have tried to deflect criticism of his interior defensive line last week, but there was little question that the Patriots hadn’t been winning the point-of-attack battles, even when beating Philadelphia in week one. That changed last night, as the Pats d-line dominated the line of scrimmage throughout, thanks to Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, and yes, Keith Traylor and Vince Wilfork. They were particularly effective in shutting down the Panthers ground game on first down, and though they never sacked the elusive Delhomme, they applied consistent pressure on pass plays.

Carolina’s offensive line may have undergone wholesale changes in the off-season, but good football is good football, and the Pats front seven played it last night.

I might have been seeing things (I upped the Heineken dosage), but Dan Klecko seemed to make a lot of plays from the inside linebacker position last night. He seemed to fit comfortably among the Vrabels, Bruschis, Colvins and Phifers, giving hope to Kleckomaniacs everywhere. Eat your vitamins and listen to your parents, kids!

I suppose if you want to be pissed about something, you can find fault with a sometimes-leaky secondary, even if it was without a suddenly-gimpy Ty Law. Should I be concerned about this, by the way? Or was Ty only sitting out to protest something? I’ve got to get down and get the papers.

But it’s like I’ve been trying to tell you – this Carolina passing offense can give you heart attacks. An industrious quarterback and tough, slippery receivers are going to make some plays on you once in awhile.

Better you should focus on the fact that, for the first time since February, the Patriots ball-hawking defense created some turnovers, including one to stunt a potential Panther scoring drive. Klecko, Vrabel and Jarvis Green each forced fumbles, which is a good sign in light of this defense’s inability to do so in its first two games. You don’t want to be the good defense that never forces a turnover. Too high a probability of a head scratching 6-10 record.

Patriots on Special Teams

Call me picky, but there is something too loosey-goosy about the kick/punt coverage and return teams. I’m not sure we can continue to attribute this to rookies and undrafted free agents, especially after we cut them.

What’s with Adam Vinatieri, anyway? If we’re going to pay millions of dollars for a kicker, of all things, the least he could do is make a big kick once in awhile.

Patriots on the Sidelines

I don’t want to say that officiating crew was flag happy last night, but even Johnny Grier was wincing at some of those calls.

Alarm over 15 penalties for almost 130 yards (including some ballcrushing defensive calls that resuscitated Panther drives) is pretty hard to dismiss, but some on, didn’t that seem a little over the top to you? One thing is certain: the referees are having a fine pre-season in anticipation of Flag Day, which this year is on September 9th.

Still, it’s a little hard to pin all the sloppiness on the officials, especially after I set the bar kind of high with that Three Games to Glory II reference earlier. Silver lining department: all those penalties will give Belichick something to yell about over the next two weeks. He can even threaten them with his jet-engine sound system. Tighten it up, you guys! Don’t make me put on Slippery When Wet!

A final sobering note: Troy Brown suffering a leg injury after returning a punt. I’m concerned whether the media will be able to successfully blame this on Belichick, what with the short-week and everything.

Patriots Next Week

First, pink slips for some, then a weird little Thursday night match-up with the Jags to wrap up the pre-season. Yikes! Watch the injuries – those guys carry axes!