January 2, 2005
49ers vs. Patriots
At Gillette Stadium, Patriots WIN, 21-7
By Scott A. Benson

The Patriots completed back to back 14-2 seasons today with an oddly uncomfortable 21-7 win over the San Francisco 49ers at Gillette.

It was a peculiar game, almost painful to watch. Much of the chatter leading up to the Niners visit focused on the ‘insignificance’ of the game (the result could not affect the standings, or more to the point, the Patriots’ playoff seeding) and, consequently, the notion that the Patriots’ starters would airlifted safely away from the action well before the opening kickoff, so as to ensure their fitness for a Pats run to the Super Bowl.

Others discussed the need for the Patriots to keep their play calling close to the vest because scouts for their possible divisional round playoff opponents would be watching from the stands. In any event, nobody spent too much time talking about ‘the upside’ of the last game of the regular season.

As a result, there was a palpable anxiety to the proceedings. Even the Patriots themselves reflected it – they appeared too anxious to dispose quickly of the Niners, especially offensively, which in turn enabled San Francisco to hang around like grim death throughout most of the game. A series of early turnovers and penalties combined to stunt an easy victory and keep many starters playing well into the fourth quarter.

Still, in the end, the Patriots left the field with a reasonably solid win and no major injuries. They overcame the adversity caused by their early sloppiness to gain control of the game in the second half and ensure their fourteenth win. A few reserves shined when given the chance to play a lead role, as New England backups so frequently do.

It wasn’t pretty, but it didn’t have to be. Mainly, it just had to be over. And now it is.

Patriots on Offense

The few observers that declared definitively before the game that Tom Brady would be sent packing after the first quarter may choose to carve up some Bill Belichick this week. They shouldn’t judge the Pats coach too harshly; I’m sure they plan was to get Brady out of there as soon as possible, just as soon as he threw four first-half touchdown passes.

Surprisingly, the Pats favored the pass over the run by a 2-1 margin in the first half, no doubt in an effort to put the game away early. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect, keeping Brady in the game until the fourth quarter.

First, it was a Corey Dillon fumble of a Brady screen pass that stopped the first Pats drive, after they had advanced from their own 7 to the Niners 32. Dillon was stripped from behind by San Francisco DE John Engleberger after gaining 18 yards on a well executed play.

Then, after the Pats defense dispatched the Niners without a first down, it was Brady and Dillon again, from their own 34. This time, Brady awkwardly tried to dump the ball to Dillon, and the wild pass banged off Dillon’s right hand at midfield before landing in the arms of Niners’ corner Dwaine Carpenter, who returned it to the Pats 22.

Five plays later the Niners had broken the Pats streak of scoring first at 23, and New England fans were again left to ponder their team’s late season futility against NFL also rans.

Brady came back in the second quarter, though, and led the Pats on a 71 yard, no-huddle drive that ended when a wide open Mike Vrabel caught a short flip from Brady to tie the game. Arrogant Belichick; not only are they playing the starters, they’ve got them going two ways!

Brady set up the touchdown with a 22 yard completion to David Givens (injured players still in the game!) that brought the ball to the SF 2. Dillon also redeemed himself on this drive with a 19 yard stab through the heart of the Niners defense.

The fun wasn’t over yet, though. After another San Francisco punt, Brady again went back to the no-huddle and drove the team from the Pats 24 to inside the Niners 20. Brady hit Jed Weaver and David Patten for big gains in this drive, but when he dropped to pass on a 2nd and long, Engleberger again flashed through to strip the ball away and keep a New England score off the board. Thanks to his efforts, and the Pats sloppiness, the first half ended tied at 7-7.

With about 11 minutes to play in the third quarter and the game still tied, the Patriots took over the ball at midfield after the Pats special teams and defense had conspired to trap San Francisco near its own goal line. They again returned to the no huddle, and a 29 yard Dillon sprint (again through the middle of the Niners defense) brought the ball inside the SF 20. After a short completion brought the ball inside the 10, Brady found Deion Branch on a pick and roll screen play and the third year big-play receiver tight roped along the sideline for the score, and the lead.

Two possessions later, Brady drove the Pats from their own 34 to the Niners 14 (more no huddle stuff, with the big play another down the middle strike to Weaver for 25) before finally giving way to Rohan Davey, who finished off the scoring drive with two gives to Dillon. Brady left after going 22-30 with two TD passes, his 27th and 28th of the season.

Dillon, who left shortly after Brady, finished with 116 yards on only 16 carries, so if the Pats were looking to rest their star runner, they succeeded. And much to the delight of the local media, he reached his $375,000 incentive bonus for reaching 1,600 yards for the season. I’m not sure if Corey had previously pledged to give the bonus to them if he earned it, but they sure seemed interested in that. Well, at least the media got what it wanted.

Dillon’s TD to open the fourth quarter was his 12th of the season, tying a Patriots team record. He was spelled by the trio of Patrick Pass, Rabih Abdullah and Cedric Cobbs for the rest of the day.

By the way, that fumbled screen pass in the first quarter? The Patriots should have challenged that ruling. The replay showed (at least to me) that Dillon was down before he fumbled the ball. Were the Pats resting the red bean bag for the playoffs?

Jed Weaver seemed to play the role of Daniel Graham for the day, and he did it well. He finished with four catches for 62 yards, and made key plays on two scoring drives.

Patriots on Defense

The defense wasn’t excepted from the weirdness that was the season’s last – and most meaningless – game.

They allowed a 100 yard rusher (Kevan Barlow) for just the third time this season, yet, if you ask me, the Patriots stopped the run. The Niners averaged less than four yards a carry in 35 tries. 53 of Barlow’s yards were on two runs that came after the Pats had the game well in hand.

They allowed a number of drive extending third down conversions through the air, yet if you look at the scoreboard, they held their opponent to just seven points. And that was only when San Francisco began a drive at the Patriots 22 after a first quarter turnover by the struggling offense.

Most importantly, the Patriots defense left the field with a win and precious few bumps and bruises for the days ahead.

Tully Banta Cain relieved Willie McGinest early in the contest and had a strong game with six tackles and an alert fumble recovery when, in the third quarter, the Niners Maurice Hicks collided with an offensive lineman and coughed up the ball.

Hicks later fumbled again on a fourth down play late in the game, and it was recovered by Earthwind Moreland. They were the only two Patriots takeways of the afternoon.

Jarvis Green, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork all helped to clog the line against the run. McGinest had the Patriots’ only sack.

Not one to take too many vacations, Tedy Bruschi played deep into the fourth quarter and led all Patriots with 15 tackles.

Patriots on Special Teams

The whole day got off on the wrong note when Moreland’s block in the back wiped out Bethel Johnson’s electric 86 punt return for a touchdown on the Patriots’ first touch of the game.

It took a touchdown off the board, but even the most disgusted Patriots fan had to be buoyed by Johnson’s clean sprint to the goal line. We look forward to a healthy Johnson returning kicks in two weeks.

The other special teams highlight was the kicking of Josh Miller and the downfield coverage of the returning J’Rod Cherry, who came off the waiver wire to expertly down two Miller punts at the SF goal line.

Patriots on the Sidelines

The Pats were pass happy at the start, and it’s clear the plan was to do away with San Francisco early. Ah, the best laid plans. Still, if the players had executed at all, the team might have shattered the franchise record for most points scored in a season. As it was, they finished four points short.

Defensively, the Pats tried to force the game into the hands of Niners backup Ken Dorsey, and even though he responded with a relatively clean game, he was unable to mount any kind of challenge on the score board.

And now, a few funs facts while I get over the disappointment that Belichick didn’t hand Romeo the headset:

1) At 14-2, the Patriots have tied the best record in history for a defending Super Bowl Champion;
2) The Patriots have now earned their fourth first-round bye since the current playoff system was instituted in 1990. In their three previous bye seasons, the Pats advanced to the Super Bowl;
3) The Pats’ four byes rank second in NFL history, behind Pittsburgh’s six;
4) New England has now won 19 straight at home, the NFL’s longest current home winning streak. The Pats have not lost at home since a 30-17 defeat to the New York Jets on Dec. 22, 2002 (second week in a row I’ve mentioned that game).

Patriots Next Week

I’m taking next week off to protect myself for the playoffs.

Obviously, all eyes with be on CBS (no pun intended) on Sunday afternoon at 1:00 PM, as the Denver Broncos travel to Indianapolis for a wild card game. With an easy mark as their first-round opponent, it’s getting more likely by the minute that the Colts will advance to the divisional round to face the Patriots in Foxboro.

See you in two weeks.