by Chris Warner
Before last night, Bill Belichick had only beaten Denver twice in his coaching career. That number increased by 50 percent after New England’s 41-7 dismantling of a flailing Broncos squad. The game saw the return of high-scoring football and opportunistic defense to Foxboro, as well as injuries to high-profile players on both sides.
How was the visitors’ performance? So bad that Merriam-Webster has officially categorized the term “Denver defense” as an oxymoron. On the night, New England’s quarterback, the oft-maligned-for-not-being-Tom-Brady Matt Cassel, completed 75 percent of his passes (18 for 24) for 185 yards and three touchdowns. As for the running game, the Patriots gained 257 yards, averaging 6.7 per play.
I mean, seriously, the Broncos should change their mascot to the Confidence Builders.
The play that seemed to put Denver away happened with the home team leading 13-0 with 1:32 left in the first half. The Patriots went for it on fourth down (having succeeded at it once before), knowing that, if they failed, they would surrender possession near midfield with a chance to score and regain some momentum. Sammy Morris kept the proverbial pendulum from swinging that way, bouncing outside of fullback Heath Evans’ block and picking up 29 yards to the Broncos’ 13. On the next play, Cassel made one of the best-looking passes of his short career, stepping up under pressure and firing the ball high to Randy Moss for a touchdown and a 20-0 halftime lead.
Each team had injuries to deal with, though Denver’s came earlier. On the first play of the game, quarterback Jay Cutler followed through on a pass and plunked tackle Vince Wilfork on the helmet, causing the top joint on Cutler’s index finger to resemble a cherry tomato. Five minutes later, running back Michael Pittman got racked up by end Ty Warren, forcing backup Andre Hall (and Hall’s two fumbles) into the mix. On the other side of the ball, cornerback extraordinaire Champ Bailey needed the trainers’ table midway through the second quarter, allowing Moss some leeway he would not have had otherwise.
Injuries do not discriminate. The home team suffered two significant hurts as well, as Morris’ personal-best day came to an early end (16 rushes, 138 yards, one TD in one half) and safety Rodney Harrison got carted off with what appeared to be a significant injury late in the third. Morris’ replacement, undrafted rookie Benjarvus Green-Ellis, picked up where the veteran left off, smashing would-be tacklers for consistent, tough yardage (65 yards on 13 carries, plus the final, give-the-rookie-a-cookie TD of the game).
Cassel gets sacked more than flour, and – despite his solid stats – in this game he continued to hold onto the ball until every voice in the stadium (except for the one inside his head) was telling him to throw it. New England’s QB went down six times behind the line. At least two of those could have been avoided by tossing the ball out of bounds. It should be noted, however, that Cassel succeeded where his counterpart didn’t: he avoided turning the ball over.
Only Cutler knows how much his finger threw off his passing, but the Broncos’ leader gave up the ball twice. The first one came on a deep interception with five minutes left in the half (Gillette fans got to say, “Nice catch, Brandon Meriweather,” without irony). Sub QB Patrick Ramsey failed to fare any better, coughing up the ball on the next possession during a sack at New England’s 44. Cutler’s second interception went to safety James Sanders midway through the third. That pick sparked an 80-yard Patriots sojourn that ended with Wes Welker’s six-yard touchdown reception and a 34-0 advantage.
Though Cutler was not his usual self, New England’s defense deserved credit, especially end Richard Seymour (three tackles, 1.5 sacks), Sanders (five tackles) and rookie linebacker Jerod Mayo (eight solo tackles). With linebackers Adalius Thomas (three tackles, 0.5 sacks) and Mike Vrabel (two tackles) adding pressure, Cutler couldn’t seem to get comfortable. A refreshing change from last week vs. San Diego.
As play got chippy, penalties affected both teams. Denver hurt themselves more, compiling eight infractions for 87 yards (New England had five for 65, many of which happened after the game had been decided). The worst for the Broncos occurred on the drive resulting in the aforementioned touchdown to Moss. New England began on their own 16. Morris lost one yard. Cassel got sacked for a seven-yard loss (again, despite much advice from fans to avoid that predicament). On third and 18 from his own eight, Cassel fluttered a pass incomplete; however, an egregious facemask penalty by Jamie Winborn (technically, I don’t think “egregious” is the proper officiating term, but considering Winborn dragged Cassel down face-first, it seems appropriate) netted a first down at the 23. Later in the drive, Denver’s Ebenezer “Of All the Dickens Characters To Be Named After, Why Him?” Ekuban added 15 yards to the Patriots’ efforts with an unsportsmanlike penalty. Overall, a poor showing from a team that has historically prided itself on good coaching and execution.
The Patriots special teams got in on the act early in the third. Chris Hanson’s punt pushed Denver back to the 12-yard line. When Denver punted the ball back four plays later, Wes Welker returned it 44 yards to the 28. On third and long, Cassel slung the ball to Moss behind the line of scrimmage; the receiver cut inside Welker’s block, slipped a tackle, then weaved past Matt Light’s and Logan Mankins’ interference for a nifty 27-yard TD. That made it 27-0, Patriots, causing Foxboro fans to appreciate what San Diegans experienced the previous week: a rout by the home team.
Coach Belichick put his imprint on the game by going aggressive early. Leading 6-0 midway through the second quarter, the Pats had worked their way to the four-yard line on fourth down, needing one yard to get the first. A field goal would have put them beyond one touchdown. Instead of playing it safe, the coach called on Morris, who followed Evans’ solid block (he had several on the night) into the end zone. With 7:34 left in the half, Morris had already piled up 106 yards on 11 carries.
Though few could have predicted this outcome, the first quarter looked promising for the home team on both sides of the ball. At first, the Broncos seemed unfazed by Cutler’s injury, gaining plenty of ground via the run, but after Pittman got dinged, Hall fumbled, giving the Patriots their first turnover since 2007 (not true: it just felt that way). On New England’s opening drive, Morris had 25 yards on four carries. Cassel’s quick pass to Benjamin Watson went for 29 yards, the tight end’s first big catch-and-run since 2006 (again: untrue. Sorry. I can’t help myself). On second and eight from Denver’s 14, guard Billy Yates allowed Ekuban a straight path to Cassel for an eight-yard sack. Stephen Gostkowski came on two plays later for a 31-yard kick and a 3-0 Patriots lead.
When Hall fumbled again at New England’s 37, the chase after the ball and an unnecessary roughness penalty added 41 yards to Denver’s 22. The Patriots gained one yard on a Morris run but got no closer, calling on Gostkowski again to make it 6-0. With the home team having been held to two field goals after two turnovers, fans could not have felt comfortable. Yet.
And, while they still shouldn’t get too comfortable, they at least had the chance to watch a game decided early – in their favor.
Thanks for noticing: Maybe the secret of the draft lies somewhere after it. Four undrafted players made their presence known Monday: Green-Ellis, of whom we’ll be seeing much more in light of injuries to every other New England halfback (as Laurence Maroney has gone on injured reserve, Morris left the game after one half, and LaMont Jordan has been out with a calf problem, this isn’t an exaggeration); Mike Wright, a defensive lineman who caused the Ramsey fumble on his sack late in the second quarter; linebacker Gary Guyton, who caught the fumble with one hand and returned it seven yards (and had two tackles); and linebacker Pierre Woods, who hurried Cutler on his first interception. Also of note: late-round picks LeKevin Smith (two total tackles, fumble recovery) and Mike Richardson (four tackles). Oh, yeah: seventh-rounder Cassel had an okay day for himself, too.