by Scott Benson
Alan Greenberg was right!
Matt Cassel DID play quarterback against the Packers today.
Thankfully, Cassel was not in there to relieve an ailing Tom Brady, as Greenberg fretted might happen this week. Rather, Cassel played only to mop up what was left of the Green Bay Packers after Brady and the Patriots suddenly got very healthy by creaming the Pack 35-0 this afternoon at Lambeau Field.
Brady threw for four touchdown passes and cooly directed a balanced offense that moved efficiently from the opening gun, while his defensive teammates put Brett Favre out of the game after thoroughly squashing Green Bay in the air and on the ground. The Packers were held to just over 110 yards of total offense, while the Patriots offense rolled up 350 yards and five scores.
New England was never in one second’s danger of losing this game today.
The Patriots should immediately petition to be transferred to the NFC North. In eight quarters this season, they’ve have overwhelmed half of that division (the Packers and the Minnesota Vikings) by a combined score of 66-7.
The division’s other half, Chicago and Detroit, travel to Foxboro (and its new Field Turf surface) over the next two weekends.
They may have arrived just in the nick of time, as there’s something about the NFC North that makes the Patriots look like Super Bowl champions. Today, New England was in complete control from the opening kickoff.
After the defense began by sweeping Farve and the Packers away with a quick three-and-out, Brady and the offense took over with a 7 play, 63 yard scoring drive that gave them an early lead they would never reliquish.
They key play was a deep center toss to an in-stride Ben Watson, who took it 36 yards to the Green Bay 11. The Packers held, forcing the Pats to a 4th and goal from the 2. Again Bill Belichick eschewed the field goal, and Brady held the line with a sharp play action fake before hitting an open Daniel Graham for the scoring pass.
The defense, even without three-quarters of its secondary, continued to make quick work of the Packers. The biggest test came when Brady and Corey Dillon muffed an exchange, and the Packers recovered at the New England 30. Favre could neither find open running lanes or open receivers, and with another three-and-out, the Pats forced at 44 yard Dave Raymer field goal attempt. He badly missed it to the right, and Green Bay was left with nothing.
Suitably de-hooked, the Patriots offense marched again. This time, they took to the ground behind Laurence Maroney, as Dillon cooled his heels on the Pats bench. The rookie carried 4 times for 14 yards on the drive, supported by Kevin Faulk, Heath Evans (a key fourth down conversion) and finally, by Dillon, who carried the ball for the final yard and the Patriots second touchdown.
The balanced attack gave Brady more time to pass, and even his incompletions racked up yards. His goal line miss of Daniel Graham resulted in a 22 yard pass interference penalty, which set up Dillon’s plunge.
Aside from the handoff miscue with Dillon, everything went Tom’s way today. After the penalty, Brady missed a wide open Mike Vrabel at the back of the end zone. Vrabel leapt and came down with the ball on a close play, but was ruled out (a replay showed he may have made the catch). But the missed opportunity was quickly assauged by Dillon’s scoring run.
Even with the two touchdown lead, the Patriots defense persisted. The Packers continued to try the run, but were met every time by the Patriots defensive interior, led by Vince Wilfork. Wilfork talked this week about playing more physical football, and he was at his penetrating best today. Green Bay could muster but 43 rushing yards against Wilfork and the others.
The Packers passing was no better. Favre was under no great pressure at first, but he could find no one to throw to. Even without Rodney Harrison, Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel, the Patriots secondary choked off the underneath throws while sealing off the big play downfield.
Some, or all, of it must have come from design, or maybe it was just luck. At times, Favre had an open receiver, but he was so generally flummoxed by the options downfield that he misfired wildly despite being presented with a free battery mate.
He was eventually driven from the game entirely. After Brady had stretched the Patriots lead to 21 (another effective play action that produced the season’s longest pass play, a 54 yard beauty to a wide-open Reche Caldwell), Favre took the ball with two minutes left in the half. He finally exploited the Patriots ailing secondary, going over Troy Brown (again pressed into nickel coverage) to hit Donald Driver down the right side for 38 yards and a first down at the Patriots 40. The Packers would try to make a game of it before the half.
On the next play, Tully Banta Cain rushed from Favre’s left, eventually landing at his feet. Banta Cain hung on for dear life, and as Favre sagged to the ground, he got a face full of a fully launched Tedy Bruschi. The hit drove Favre’s shoulder into the chilled turf, and he left for the day with a numb right arm and some simply awful passing numbers (5 for 15 for 73 yards).
Aaron Rodgers took over for Favre, missed his first two passes, and basically maintained that level for the rest of the day.
The Patriots added a third quarter touchdown by Ben Watson (the end product of a 6 play, 60 yard drive), who made a nice vertical catch of a Brady throw into tight end zone coverage. Watson, who critics called ‘invisible’ for his recent play, was the leading receiver (5 catches, 74 yards) in Brady’s solid 21-30, 244 yard, 4 TD, 0 INT passing attack.
Maroney, who led the Pats on the ground with a steady 19 carry, 82 yard day, scored the Pats final TD when he took a fourth quarter swing pass to Brady’s left and deked Nick Barnett into next week before racing untouched 19 yards down the sideline into the end zone. The score was set up by a Kevin Faulk 36 yard punt return that gave the Pats a first down at the Green Bay 23.
The Patriots faced one more Packer challenge, after a late punt gave Green Bay the ball at midfield. But Mike Vrabel raced from Rodgers’s right to strip the ball, and Mike Wright fell on the fumble to close out the Packers’ final possession.
Vinny Testaverde, signed on Tuesday to serve as an emergency quarterback, took his first snaps as a Patriot while taking the knee and running out the clock.
The Patriots offensive line closed the leaks in their pass protection, giving Brady all kinds of room and all kinds of time. Of course, this usually gets easier to do when you have some semblance of balance in your offense, as the Patriots finally did today. They ran the ball 40 times and tried to throw only 33. What was most encouraging was that the Patriots stayed patient and in a deliberate, huddle offense, leaving aside the frenetic no-huddle fastbreak.
You can’t argue with the results. The Patriots piled up 22 first downs to Green Bay’s 5, and held the time of possession by a two-to-one advantage.
Troy Brown had another unsung Sunday in a career built from them, making first downs on offense and taking them away on defense. Other highlights included Caldwell’s picturebook touchdown (he’s now set or tied career highs in catches, yards and TD’s, with 6 games to play), Vrabel’s 6 tackle, 1.5 sack day, Ty Warren’s return (and 1.5 sacks), and New England kick coverage teams that were all over the Green Bay returners.
Josh Miller sounded the only down note with another poor punting display. He’s off his stride.
It’s hard to tell just much the Pats gained today, as 4-6 Green Bay struggled badly in every facet of the game. But maybe the Patriots really are that much better than the teams they have in the NFC North.
With the 9-1 Chicago Bears up next, let’s hope so.