by Dan Snapp
You never know what memories of a football game you’ll stash away long after the contest’s completed. The big plays typically get top billing – the bomb, the interception, the game-ending sack – but often, it’s less-likelier suspects that resonate. It’s a subtle part of the game’s beauty.
Early in the fourth quarter Sunday, after the Rams went up 16-13 on the Patriots, an old familiar feeling washed over: the Patriots are going to win this.
There was no particular rhyme or reason for it at the time. The Patriots had just consummated an abysmal third quarter by giving up an onside kick, two interceptions, the ball on downs, and ultimately the lead. Moreover, their first possession of the fourth featured two dropped passes, a sack and punt.
Didn’t matter. The feeling persisted.
And it was familiar not from last year, when a different kind of “They’re going to win this” feeling would hit, usually in the first quarter. No, this was a feeling returning from 2003 and 2004.
Despite their matching 14-2 records those two years, the Patriots were often undersold as a league power, as they rarely blew anybody out. A common win would be them holding an 8- to 11-point lead early in the fourth, and then watching the opposition use up most of remaining regulation getting one of the two scores they needed.
To beat the Patriots back then, you had to knock them out early. If they were lingering, they were going to win. That old feeling said as much.
The feeling is hooey, of course. That you’d feel it was real, but it was nothing more than confidence stemming from the team’s hard work, rather than anything otherworldly. It’s the old adage, “Repetition is the mother of skill,” which then becomes the mother of our superstitions.
The first seeds of it were planted in 2000. The Pats lost 11 games that year, but with a couple exceptions, they were in each game. You could sense the handful of plays where each game could have turned differently, but more importantly, you could see that the Patriots players were usually in position to make those plays but simply didn’t. Better players and another year in the system would turn them in the Pats’ favor.
The same thing was evident Sunday against the Rams. Matt Cassel may have won the offensive player of the week honors the previous week, but Sunday was his watershed moment. In contrast to his first six games, he was suddenly leading his receivers, moving up in the pocket better, and not waiting for the receivers to get open before throwing the ball. And on a day when the Rams were forcing the Pats to win it on Cassel’s arm, he stepped up.
The two interceptions Cassel threw were the kinds of throws you want to see. The first was on an attempt to Randy Moss in single coverage, something a QB should always try for, and the second might have caught Wes Welker in stride if he hadn’t slipped on the turf.
The two fades Cassel threw to the end zone – a Moss drop and a Kevin Faulk TD – displayed a touch heretofore not shown by the young quarterback. Combine that with a resurgent pass rush, a recovering offensive line, hopefully the speedy return to health of Sammy Morris, and a league with no real superpower, and the Pats could make some waves.
You could get a good feeling about this team.
I don’t think it was Cassel bringing back that feeling, it was Kevin Faulk having a bigger than normal role in the offense and once again making all the plays when they needed to be made.
Faulk being Faulk, Richard Seymour being the old Richard Seymour, and Adalius Thomas looking like Willie McGinest all have a lot more to do with that sense of comfort.
But this was the first game where I felt Cassel could handle stretches of the offense riding on his arm, rather than playing “game manager”.
There’s no real knowing how much of a defensive challenge the Rams were; I don’t doubt there will be defenses coming up this year that will make Cassel look horrible again.
What I took from the past two games is regardless of the quality of the opposition, the Patriots did what they had to to win. I was thrilled they kept running the ball against Denver, resisting the urge to try to balance it too much. And I was glad to see they didn’t keep trying to run when it was obvious the Rams were stacking up to stop it.
They played to what the game conditions dictated.
Agreed Dan. Sunday was the first time I had that feeling too. Even in the 41-7 win vs. the Broncos, it didn’t feel as strong. What feeling? The “hmmmm, maybe they are gelling….maybe they have something here….” feeling. The feeling they are getting BETTER.
And I was the one who talked to you about the fact they lacked passion this year. And I worried they were just spent from last year, even still. And the last two weeks, especially Sunday, they seemed more like the 2001 Patriots to me. Which is a good thing.
So maybe I’m wrong. Unless they roll out a couple clunkers 3 out of the next 5 weeks or something.